An advocacy group has called for an investigation and issued several demands after a Muslim woman from Maryland said she was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight "without any credible explanation" Wednesday.
Zainab Chaudry, an official with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said at a press conference Friday that Hakima Abdulle, a Takoma Park resident, had boarded a Seattle-bound aircraft in Chicago when a flight attendant told her she would not be permitted to remain on board.
Airport police then escorted Adbulle – who is of Somalian descent and was wearing a hijab, or headscarf – to the ticket counter, where she waited several hours for a later flight, Chaudry said.
Chaudry said Abdulle was en route to Seattle to visit a pregnant niece and planning to help with the delivery.
The flight attendant and Southwest employees inside the terminal were unable to provide "any reasonable explanation" for their action, Chaudry said, adding that Abdulle, who speaks little English, was reduced to tears and "suffered extreme distress and anxiety as a result of this experience."
According to Chaudry, Abdulle had boarded the connecting flight when she asked the passenger beside her if he would switch seats with her so she could have a seat at the end of the row.
Abdulle told CAIR officials the man agreed and was about to make the change when a flight attendant intervened, telling both they would not be allowed to move, according to Chaudry.
When Abudulle asked why she could not move even after the other passenger had agreed, the flight attendant told her she was being removed from the flight, CAIR said.
Chaudry said CAIR called the press conference only after Southwest failed to respond to two requests for an explanation, leading the group to wonder whether the decision had been made for reasons of religious bias.
Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Southwest, said in an email that "information available, collected at the time of the event, indicates that our employees followed proper procedures in response to this customer's actions while onboard the aircraft" but declined to elaborate on the incident "out of respect for the customer's privacy."
"We are not in the business of removing passengers from flights without reason," she added. "We are responsible for the comfort of all passengers and do not tolerate discrimination of any kind."
Chaudry said Abdulle and her husband, Abukar Fidaw, seek no financial compensation, but she listed four demands – that Southwest begin a prompt investigation, apologize to Abdulle in person, reimburse her airfare and insure that its employees have appropriate diversity training.
Abdulle was in Seattle Friday, Chaudry said, where she was helping prepare for her niece's delivery.
Fidaw, who attended the press conference at CAIR headquarters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., said he spoke with his wife on the phone Wednesday as the incident unfolded and that he asked several flight attendants why they were removing her.
"They ignored me," he said. "I hope they understand the mistakes they did, and that it will not happen again."
Chaudry said the incident was one of an increasing number in which Muslim passengers or passengers who "have an Arabic appearance" have reported being removed from flights with little explanation in recent months.
According to its website, CAIR's mission as America's largest Muslim advocacy organization is to "enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding."