A Muslim woman has alleged that a Southwest Airlines flight attendant forced her to move from her seat on the emergency exit row because she “couldn’t speak English” and “would bring the whole plane down in an emergency”.
The American-born, bilingual passenger, identified only as Fatima, is suing the airline for religious discrimination as a result.
She was travelling from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Dallas, Texas on 22 May along with her sister after a visit to see their mother in hospital when the incident occurred.
The pair spoke in Arabic as they boarded the plane and sat in their seats on the emergency exit row.
A flight attendant allegedly told them to move, despite the sisters imploring her in English, which they both speak fluently.
Fatima’s lawyer, Marwa Elbially, claimed the member of cabin crew initially refused to reconsider, telling them, “It doesn’t matter,” before declaring that Fatima’s sister, who was not wearing a hijab, could remain where she was but that Fatima, who was wearing one, should move.
“The hardest part was keeping my composure for three hours after being insulted,” Fatima said.
The Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is filing a lawsuit against the carrier on Fatima’s behalf.
“This young lady, Fatima, was targeted not because she did anything wrong, but simply because of the same she looks and her faith and her religious tradition,” said CAIR-DFW executive director Faizan Syed.
“This is textbook religious discrimination and profiling.
“You have two sisters, one who wears the hijab and the other who does not, and both board at the same time. One is denied the right to sit where she wants, while the other is encouraged to take a seat based on nothing else then perceived religiosity.”
CAIR said it wants the suit to result in an apology for Fatima, disciplinary action for the flight attendant and more training for Southwest staff.
A Southwest Airlines spokesperson disputed Fatima’s claims, telling The Independent: “Our internal reports from the flight do not support claims made by the passenger regarding comments or decisions being made based upon appearance.
“The safety of our passengers is paramount, and individuals seated in an exit row are required to verbally indicate that they can perform certain duties inflight.
“Our crew is responsible for getting that confirmation from a passenger before seating them in an overwing exit row and was unable to gain acknowledgment from the passenger during boarding. Therefore, as a courtesy, the crew offered her an alternate seat.
“Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind. Since Southwest Airlines’ inception, we have put people first and maintain a mutual respect for our fellow Southwest Airlines employees, our customers, and the diverse communities that we serve.”