A Muslim rights group is asking Spirit Airlines to apologize to four passengers who were removed Tuesday from a flight out of BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.
The airline denies that the passengers' ethnicity or religion played a role in the incident.
A woman and three men aboard Spirit Airlines Flight 969 bound for Chicago O'Hare International Airport were escorted off the plane and questioned Tuesday morning after a witness reported suspicious activity to the flight crew, Maryland Transportation Authority police said. Police determined that one of the passengers was watching a news report on a smartphone.
Other passengers described the four as being of Middle Eastern descent. A police spokesman would not provide information about them.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the passengers were targets of racial profiling.
"These passengers were inconvenienced and forced to endure humiliating treatment and invasive questioning for no apparent substantial reason other than because their perceived ethnicity caused alarm in a fellow passenger," CAIR Maryland spokeswoman Zainab Chaudry said in a statement.
Spirit Airlines Stephen Schuler said the passengers were not targeted because of their ethnicity or religion.
"We do not tolerate discrimination or remove passengers because of where they are from, their ethnicity, or their religion," Schuler said in an email. "The passenger in question [the one using the smartphone] was removed from the flight because of his behavior, which was breaking airline and FAA rules during the taxiing process, and refusing to cooperate with crew instructions."
The airline said Tuesday that the flight was taxiing before takeoff when a passenger alerted a flight attendant to suspicious behavior. Four passengers were questioned and released Tuesday. No charges were filed.
A spokesman for CAIR said the organization has not talked to the four passengers and does not know whether they are Muslims or from the Middle East. But the group questioned what the airline considered suspicious behavior, and said the situation could have been handled differently.
"Watching news on your smartphone has never qualified as a security threat or as suspicious behavior, and could have been easily vetted as such with minimal inquiry by the flight crew," said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of CAIR Chicago. "That this was escalated into an ordeal seems to be exclusively due to the passenger's perceived ethnicity."