New lawsuits aim to curb racism aboard airplanes

Court cases pit captains' authority and passengers' suspicions against Arab-Americans' civil rights.

On New Year's Eve, Michael Dasrath was settling into his first-class seat on a Continental Airlines flight from Newark, N.J., to Tampa, Fla.

A consultant for JP Morgan who was originally from Guyana, he was going to visit his family for the holiday. Two other dark-skinned men were sitting in front of him, chatting.

A woman nearby watched them nervously. She got the captain's attention and told him, "those three brown men" are acting suspiciously, according to Mr. Dasrath's account. The captain then asked them to get off the plane.

"I was working downtown on Wall Street on September 11, and I will never forget the horror of that day," says Dasrath. "But ejecting me from a flight to make a passenger feel better isn't going to make anyone safer."

In this post-9/11 world, it's one of a pilot's toughest calls: What to do when there's a complaint about passengers who appear to be of Arab or Middle Eastern dissent. But too often, according to the activists, they're making the wrong call.

Yesterday, Mr. Dasrath became a plaintiff in one of five major discrimination lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), on behalf of five men and the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), against United, American, Continental, and Northwest airlines. The men contend they were ejected from flights based not on security concerns, but purely on the prejudice of airline employees and other passengers.

"This denial of service is a new and disturbing form of discrimination that's emerged in this country since 9/11," says Ibish Hussein, of the ADC in Washington. "It's understandable, but it's not acceptable."

Mr. Hussein says the suits have three goals: to get a court order preventing airlines from ejecting passengers without clear cause, to push the Department of Transportation to develop a clear policy to guide airline personnel, and to win damages for the plaintiffs.

THE Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines, declined to comment on the suits by the time of this writing. But John Mazur of the Air Line Pilots Association notes that in the wake of Sept. 11, most airlines have clear policies on what to do about such passenger complaints. In late September, and again in October, the Department of Transportation also sent notices to the airlines, reminding them to guard against discrimination based on race or ethnicity. Mr Mazur says that's uppermost in captains' minds.

But ultimately, he says, the captain is responsible for the safety of the aircraft, and the FAA gives him or her broad authority to enforce it. "I think most captains are very cautious and judicious in using their authority," he says. "But you can't put them in a position of telling them, 'You can never, ever make this kind of decision,' when they're responsible for safe operation of their aircraft – although they may have to answer for it later in a review."

A United Airlines pilot, who asked not to be identified, says the company's policy is clear that the decision on the safety of an aircraft is based on "erratic or suspicious behavior, not appearances."

But Mr. Hussein at the ADA argues that too often, "suspicious behavior" is interpreted broadly. For instance, in Dasrath's case, he says he was sitting quietly and not talking to anyone. It was the two people in front of him who were chatting away.

"It is a tricky situation," says Hussein. "But too often, I think the airlines are denying people service as ... the easiest way to deal with a problem. None of these men were subjected to additional screening after they were asked to get off the flight or before they boarded another one, and in some cases, their bags stayed on the plane."

In response to critics who argue that the unusual scrutiny is justified by the very real threat posed by terrorists today, the ACLU attorney, Reginald Shuford, says:

"These men are used to extra scrutiny. They undergo additional security checks.... And they don't complain about that," he says. "But this was different. They cleared all security checks. They were sitting on the airplane.... I don't think anyone post or pre-9/11 should have to experience the discrimination they did, for doing nothing more than sitting on an airplane."

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