Aug 4, 2022 - Business

Two Muslim Americans sue Alaska Airlines, alleging discrimination

A close up of a sign that says Alaska Airlines with a wall of windows in the background.
Alaska Airlines' headquarters. Photo: Toby Scott/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Two Sudan-born American men claim in a lawsuit that Seattle-based Alaska Airlines removed and barred them from a recent flight to appease other passengers' racist and xenophobic fears.

Driving the news: In the lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Washington residents Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin allege Alaska employees ordered them to leave their first-class seats on a business flight to San Francisco on Feb. 17.

  • The action came after a fellow passenger grew suspicious of the men's text messages in Arabic while waiting to depart Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Details: Airline officials deboarded all other passengers from Flight 304 while questioning the men in public view at the gate, per the suit filed by the civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

  • An Alaska manager who spoke Arabic read Dirar's texts and found them "innocuous." Still, the airline called in FBI and TSA agents and a Port of Seattle police officer to "show [the other passengers] that Alaska Airlines was concerned about their security and took this incident seriously," the suit contends, citing the official police report on the incident.
  • Despite knowing the men "posed no threat," the airline allowed all passengers except the men — both of whom are Black, bearded, Sudan-born Muslims — to reboard the plane, the suit states
  • The airline then forced Dirar and Elamin, both of whom are U.S. citizens, to go through airport screening again before putting them on separate flights hours later, with Elamin downgraded to a seat in coach, per the suit.

What they're saying: Alaska "essentially weaponized Islamophobic, racist, and xenophobic fears by using Plaintiffs as human props in an admittedly unjustified, unnecessary, and self-serving display of discriminatory security theater," the lawsuit states.

  • By the time the men "finally reached their destination," the suit added, "they were too humiliated and traumatized by Defendant's actions to enjoy their trip."

The other side: In a statement to Axios on Wednesday, Alaska said it "strictly prohibits unlawful discrimination" and takes such complaints "very seriously."

  • "Our greatest responsibility is to ensure that our flight operations are safe — every day," it added. "Since this case remains pending litigation, we're unable to share any further comment or details at this time."

State of play: The lawsuit cites violations of the federal Civil Rights Act and the Washington State Law Against Discrimination.

  • It seeks compensatory and punitive damages, attorney's fees and court orders requiring Alaska to give its employees racial and religious sensitivity training and to establish "culturally sensitive protocols" for handling passenger complaints.
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