A San Diego State University graduate student was kicked off a flight at San Diego International Airport because a zealous flight attendant thought her saying “I’ve got to go,” on her cell phone, before the plane was about to takeoff, was “suspicious”.
Irum Abassi, a graduate student in experimental psychology, believes she was discriminated against because she was wearing an Islamic headscarf.
Southwest Airlines has made a public apology to the 31-year-old, who was told a flight attendant believed she said ‘it’s a go’ – or words to that effect – on her cellphone.
But Mrs Abassi told reporters at a news conference yesterday she actually said ‘I’ve got to go’ because the plane was about to take off.
She said: ‘I was in tears. I was just crying. I have lived in the United States for 10 years. I am a U.S. citizen.’
The San Jose State University student believes the incident was a direct result of the controversial hearings called by Senator Peter King on the radicalisation of American Muslims.
Mrs Abassi, who is originally from Pakistan, was ordered off the Southwest Airlines plane to San Jose on Sunday morning. She was returning to the city to carry out a research project for her thesis, Channel 10 reports.
TSA agents patted down her headscarf but soon recognised their mistake and did not even inspect her handbag or cellphone.
But they refused to let her back on the plane because the crew was ‘uncomfortable’ with her presence, she was told.
She told reporters: ‘They weren’t even sure what I said. I said “I’ve got to go,” because the plane was about to take off.
‘My question was, “Did I do something wrong?”And they said, “Uh, the flight attendant thinks that you are suspicious”.’
Southwest Airlines apologised to Mrs Abassi on the day of the incident, gave her a voucher for another flight, and apologised again over the phone on Wednesday morning.
But at the news conference, the student said the verbal apology: ‘doesn’t make me feel better. This time they said we weren’t comfortable with the head scarf.
‘Next time, they won’t be comfortable with my accent or they won’t be comfortable with my South Asian heritage.’
Southwest Airlines, which is investigating the incident, issued a written statement last night after Mrs Abassi demanded a formal apology. She also wants the airline to discipline crew members.
It said: ‘We sincerely apologise for the customer’s inconvenience, and we regret that she was unable to travel as scheduled.’
Mrs Abassi said she has given the voucher to someone else and does not want to fly with Southwest again.
Hanif Mohebi, executive director of the San Diego Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, who was also at the press conference, said the group believes she was targeted because of her head scarf. He said he wants to meet officials to discuss the incident.
He said: ‘If she was a threat or suspicious in any way, shape or form, why in the world would she fly the next flight, right away?’
On the same day as Mrs Abassi was removed from the plane at San Diego, three men who flew to Los Angeles were questioned by the FBI when they landed after they conducted an elaborate orthodox Jewish prayer on board.
The flight crew said they were alarmed by their behaviour and the plane’s pilots locked down the cockpit. The men were released without being arrested.