NEW YORK – Delta Air Lines has been fined US$50,000 (S$67,850) after the federal Transportation Department found that it discriminated against three Muslim passengers who had been cleared by the airline’s security but were barred from flights, according to a consent order.
The airline was also mandated to make some flight crews and customer service representatives attend civil rights training as part of the department’s order, which was issued on Friday (Jan 24). The passengers had filed complaints against Delta with the agency.
The order addressed two episodes that took place in July 2016, and involved flights from Paris to Cincinnati and from Amsterdam to New York. In both instances, the captain of the flight overruled Delta security officials, who had said the passengers passed background checks, agency officials said.
In both cases, Transportation Department officials said, Delta crews failed to follow the security protocol and their decisions to bar the passengers from the flights were discriminatory.
“It appears that but for Mr and Mrs X’s perceived religion, Delta would not have removed or denied them reboarding,” the agency said of a Cincinnati area couple who were removed from a flight.
A Delta spokesman, Ms Lisa Hellerstedt, said in an e-mail statement on Monday night that the airline had no tolerance for discrimination, but disputed the agency’s findings.
“While we understand that our best customer service was not reflected in how the incident was handled, we disagree with the Department of Transportation’s contention that Delta engaged in discriminatory conduct,” Ms Hellerstedt said.
“For that reason, we have worked to improve our investigative process since these incidents and we have supporting programmes, policies, training and procedures that back up our commitments in this area.”
A number of airlines, including American and Southwest, have faced complaints that they have discriminated against Muslim passengers.
Ms Sana Hassan, a lawyer for the Ohio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and for the couple who filed the complaint, said the fine was a step in the right direction. She said her clients Nazia and Faisal Ali had been returning from a 10-year wedding anniversary trip in Paris when they were asked to get off the Delta flight.
“They were just kicked off this flight without any explanation,” Ms Hassan said in an interview on Monday night, adding, “To be treated in this way and be marginalised in this way simply because of your Muslim appearance was disheartening for them.”
She said the couple had first complained to the airline, which she characterised as having been dismissive.
“Really, they were just concerned about this happening to other Muslims,” she said of the couple.
The couple were returning home to the Cincinnati area from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and had boarded Delta Flight 229 on July 26, 2016, when another passenger told a flight attendant that their behaviour made that passenger “very uncomfortable and nervous”, the Transportation Department said. The wife had been wearing a headscarf at the time, transportation officials said.
“The flight attendant noted that the passenger did not explain everything that made her nervous,” the agency said. “The flight attendant stated that as she walked through the cabin on a routine task, she observed Mr X texting on his cellphone using the word ‘Allah’ several times.”
The husband and wife, who are US citizens, were required to exit the plane and were interviewed and then cleared by security to reboard, but the pilot refused to allow them back on the plane, the agency said.
In the second case, a Muslim man travelling from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam to Kennedy International Airport on July 31, 2016, was pointed out to flight attendants by other passengers after he appeared to receive a small package from another person of a “similar ethnicity” and switched seats, the agency said.
After Delta security said there were no red flags, the man reboarded the plane and the flight left the gate. The captain then returned to the gate and told the airline staff to rebook the man on another flight, transportation officials said.