Delta Airlines has been fined $50,000 for discriminatory actions stemming from two different instances in 2016 in which Muslim passengers were reported by other passengers for looking suspicious. In both those cases, Delta crews had the Muslim passengers removed even after their own security confirmed that they posed no security threat.
The first case involved a married American couple returning from an anniversary trip in Paris and flying to Cincinnati, where they lived. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, a flight crew member had allegedly told the pilot that she was uncomfortable flying with the couple because the woman was wearing a headscarf and the man was nervous and sweating. According to the Department of Transportation, a passenger had told a flight attendant that she had seen the husband put something in his watch. A flight attendant also told the captain that she had seen the husband text the word “Allah” several times and that he did not smile when making eye contact. A second flight attendant said she saw the man change his screen as she walked by.
The pilot contacted security to ask to have the couple go through extra security. The security confirmed that the couple were no threat, but the pilot insisted they be removed and go through another round of security off the plane, as the flight attendants were “uncomfortable” having them on board. The couple was cleared again but still not allowed to return to their flight. They were rebooked on another Delta flight for the next day. Security officers said that the couple were not threatening but just stressed and confused.
“The Captain failed to follow Delta’s required security protocol prior to making the decision to remove [the couple] from Flight 229,” the Transportation Department consent order said. “It appears that but for [the couple]’s perceived religion, Delta would not have removed or denied them re-boarding.”
The second case occurred just days later on a flight from Amsterdam to New York. Passengers reported to flight attendants that they saw one Muslim passenger “making significant eye contact” and later receiving a small package from another “person of similar ethnicity.” Delta’s security officers reassured the captain that the passenger had no red flags, and the pilot pulled the plane away from the gate. But flight attendants, who also told the captain that the man looked sweaty and anxious, protested, and the pilot returned the plane to the gate. The Muslim passenger was removed and rebooked on another flight. Because the passenger didn’t undergo more screening before being rebooked, the Transportation Department concluded that his removal was purely discriminatory.
On Friday, the Transportation Department announced that it had found that Delta had broken the law in its treatment of the Muslim passengers. Apart from paying the fee, the airline will also have to provide cultural sensitivity training for the customer service employees and crew members involved in the two incidents.
Delta has said that it had not acted in a discriminatory way. Instead, the airline said, “it acted on observations of behavior, rather than identity,” as the people in both cases were acting suspiciously. The airline did, however, admit it could have handled both situations differently.