Niala Mohammad, a multimedia journalist with the government-funded news outlet Voice of America, and her friend, who works for the federal government and did not want to be identified for that reason, were on a delayed flight from Miami to Washington D.C. when the incident occurred.
On Monday, Mohammad tweeted a photo of herself and her friend with Miami police officers that read: “We were removed from #AmericanAir flight 2239 traveling from MIA-DCA bcuz the airline attendant felt “unsafe” us!”
“Although we were encouraged to document the incident to AA customer relations, we still experienced insult and embarrassment as two minority Muslim-American women. For being such a 'threat' to an AA attendant, it's telling that the Miami-Dade police officers joked with us and posed for this picture with the 'pretty harmless' airplane menaces,” Mohammad wrote in a Facebook post detailing the incident.
Mohammad, who was born in Boston, told BuzzFeed News that plane was on the tarmac for more than three hours. Being “bored out of her mind,” she began watching a Pakistani show on her iPhone to pass the time.
That’s when her friend, a Pakistani-American and US citizen, chatted with a white male passenger about the delay — specifically about lack of food and water given. That's when she said a male flight attendant came over and told her, “If you have a problem, you can get off the plane.”
Mohammad said her friend, who she said was calm and composed through the entire ordeal, told the flight attendant that she did not have a problem and was just “stating facts.”
The flight attendant, Mohammad said, replied by saying he could have them “removed for instigating other passengers.”
“I was flabbergasted by the whole time,” Mohammad said. They asked a female flight attendant for the male flight attendant’s name so they could send a complaint to the airline about his behavior.
They were told to point him out when they saw him again.
Her friend “took a photo of the male attendant at the front of the plane, so we could get his name, and that’s when another attendant who was walking by said that it was a federal offense,” Mohammad said.
While taking a photo on a plane is not a federal offense, airlines have the right to stop people from taking pictures on a plane.
Mohammad said that’s when the female flight attendant, who offered to identify the original flight attendant, came by and identified the original flight attendant as “Rog for Roger.” The attendant then asked them to delete the photo, which they did.
Alexis Coello, a Miami-based spokesperson for American Airlines, said they are looking into the incident and could not provide any further details.
Coello added that American Airlines does have a rule that says “employees are allowed to inhibit passengers from taking pictures, in the airport or in the airplane,” adding that the rule is in place for the safety of their employees.
Explaining their photography policy, Coello said that someone would not be taken off a plane for simply taking a picture but could be removed from a flight if they do not follow instructions after a warning.
After deleting the photo, Mohammad wrote on Facebook, “customer relations representative Ms. Lourdes Broco boarded the plane and kindly asked if we could follow her to the front. We happily consented, hoping we were finally going to be provided with water, but instead we were told to bring our belongings.”
“Waiting for us at the ramp were several armed Air Marshalls [sic] and Miami-Dade police officers.”
When Mohammad asked why they were removed from the flight she was told it was because the male flight attendant “felt threatened” and “unsafe by us.”
Mohammad told BuzzFeed News that she believes their removal was based on their darker appearance or their recognizable Muslim names, or both.
“However, the white male passenger my friend was speaking to was ironically not removed from the plane with us,” she wrote on Facebook
“It didn't occur to me at the time that it might have been about how we look but then I thought about the white passenger male in back of us who my friend was talking to. He wasn't spoken to rudely, even addressed or asked any questions,” Mohammad said.
Mohammad says the customer relations representative was nice, apologetic, and informed them that flight attendants occasionally can over exaggerate their complaints but ground personnel must comply by removing passengers if they feel unsafe.
“Maybe it was because I was watching a Pakistani drama (show), or our name, or because my friend had a giant evil eye bracelet on. Or maybe it was because we were darker, especially after being on vacation in Miami,” Mohammad told BuzzFeed News.
“I don’t know what they could possibly feel threatened by. I can't even begin to say it was our behavior because we weren't loud or obnoxious and anything,” Mohammad said.
Mohammad said she and her friend were booked on another flight, given a food voucher and $200 airline credit. She arrived home at 3:30 a.m. and had to miss work on Wednesday.