(CNN)A 23-year-old New York man remembers being “dramatically” woken up by a flight attendant who “demanded” he exit the aircraft.
Believing the plane was undergoing an emergency evacuation, he complied, only to realize later that he was being singled out.
The man, identified only by the initials “W.H” in a lawsuit filed Monday, along with three of his friends, Shan Anand, Faimul Alam, and another friend identified by the initials M.K., are alleging they were asked to leave an American Airlines Flight from Toronto to New York in early December because of their appearance.
Three of the four men ejected from the flight are Muslim; another is Sikh. Three of the four are of South Asian descent and one is of Arab descent. All the men are U.S. citizens in their 20s and all four were sitting near the front of the plane, the lawsuit states.
When they asked the flight crew why they were being removed, the flight attendant told them to exit “peacefully” and “demanded” they return to the gate and await further directions, according to the lawsuit.
“It basically made me feel like a criminal,” W.H. told CNN in a phone interview. “It was like I was put on a pedestal where everyone is pointing at you. I was frightened that they were frightened.”
It was only after the plane took off that an airline agent told the men “they could not board because the crew members, and specifically the captain, felt uneasy and uncomfortable with their presence on the flight and as such, refused to fly unless they were removed from the flight.” When the group asked the agent whether their appearance had contributed to their removal, “being that they are dark skinned and had beards,” the agent responded that their appearance “did not help,” the lawsuit said.
Two of their other friends, one Hispanic and one Pakistani, were assigned seats in the rear of the aircraft and were not asked to leave the original flight. All four men were allowed to board a subsequent flight after that flight’s captain allowed them to board, the lawsuit said.
The four men are seeking damages, alleging the airline “disgracefully engaged in the discrimination … based on their perceived race, color, ethnicity, alienage and/or national origin,” the lawsuit reads.
The flight was operated by Republic Airways, a regional partner of American Airlines.
A spokesman for Republic Airways declined to comment on the suit. American Airlines is reviewing the lawsuit, according to spokesman Victoria Lupica.
“I hope this suit serves as a reminder that discrimination is not OK and never will be and persons in authoritative positions, such as the defendants in this matter, should act based upon credible information and not ignorance,” their attorney, Tahanie Aboushi, wrote in an email to CNN.
Ibrahim Hooper, the National Communications Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, expects these types of incidents to continue.
“I think it is symptomatic of the overall rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in our society. We saw a multitude of these incidents after the San Bernardino (California) shootings. I think these incidents will only increase, unfortunately,” Hooper said. “It’s this whole thing where the flight crew is uncomfortable or the passengers are uncomfortable. Why are they uncomfortable? Because of a perceived faith and ethnicity that leads to them being thrown off planes. It’s very troubling.”
The men are suing for $1 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, according to the lawsuit.
W.H. was encouraged by the captain of the second flight, the one he was allowed to board with his three friends, to speak up about the incident.
“The captain told me we shouldn’t let this pass over. It’s not right, it’s discriminating. He said, if I was you, I wouldn’t let this go,” W.H. said.
“You see these kinds of things happen, but you don’t really get it until it happens to you. We don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
Anand said, “Seeing a mother holding her child closer to her, looking at you in fear…those stares stay in your head.”
“When I was coming off the plane, I kept thinking, ‘What did we do?’ But it was just because we looked a certain way,” he said.
A flight attendant kicked four Brooklyn men off a recent Toronto-to-New York flight for looking too Muslim — claiming their appearance made the captain uneasy, a new $9 million federal lawsuit alleges.
The four fliers from Brighton Beach were among six longtime pals who spent several days in Toronto this December.
They had originally booked different flights home, but later decided to return on the same 2 p.m. American Airlines flight.
Two of the pals, Shan Anand and Faimul Alam, paid $75 to switch to the flight that two others — who are comfortable being identified only by their initials, W.H. and M.K. — had already booked.
W.H. and M.K. also changed their booking before boarding, paying $70 for an upgrade to business class. They were assigned seats in the first and third row, respectively.
Anand and Alam said they switched seats with strangers after boarding, so they could sit next to each other.
Several minutes later, a white female flight attendant asked W.H. to get off the plane, the lawsuit, which will be filed Monday in Brooklyn Federal Court, alleges.
“I thought it was an evacuation or something, so I didn’t think nothing of it, but then she told me to take my bags, and when I went back into the plane I saw I was the only one standing,” W.H., a fashion designer, told the Daily News in an exclusive interview.
The flight attendant then asked M.K., who works as a construction worker, to leave.
Passengers surrounding Alam and Anand started making racist comments and clutching their children “as if something was going to happen,” the suit charges.
“Then we were asked to get our belongings to get off the aircraft,” said Alam, a general contractor who runs his own construction company.
The four — Alam and another flier are Bangladeshi Muslims, one is an Arab Muslim and Anand a Sikh from India — were all ordered off the flight.
The other two — one Hispanic and the other, Pakistani — had fallen asleep and were not kicked off, they claim.
“They were told to ‘just be peaceful,’ making it seem like they were a threat, making other passengers uncomfortable and wanting to get off the flight,” said Tahanie Aboushi, who represents them.
When they got off the plane, a jittery agent from American Airlines told them they made the crew uncomfortable.
“She said the stewardess and the captain felt uneasy with us being on the flight,” W.H. said. “There were inconsistencies of our behavior traveling as a group, because two of us upgraded and two of us didn’t.”
“They didn’t cite any basis of inappropriate or boisterous behavior; their situation wasn’t a security issue or threat,” charged Aboushi. “It’s the plaintiffs’ position that the reason they were taken off the flight is because this is blatant discrimination.”
M.K. says he asked the agent if they were thrown off because of their appearance. Alam has a darker complexion. W.H. has a beard.
Anand wears a turban and a beard, in keeping with his Sikh tradition.
The agent said their appearance “did not help,” according to the suit.
The flight took off, leaving the four men behind.
The gate agent told them they had to wait to see whether the captain and crew of the next flight would agree to let them on board, they claim.
“They said it was protocol,” said Anand, who works as a personal banker.
The captain of the flight that Anand and Alam had originally booked agreed to take the four men to LaGuardia Airport.
They are each seeking $1 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.
Matt Miller, an American Airlines spokesman, said the company had yet to receive the lawsuit and could not comment.
Under federal guidelines, airlines are accorded the latitude to stipulate when flight captains may and may not refuse to transport a passenger. The pilot and flight crew in this case were contracted through Republic Airlines, a source said.
The men are also suing Republic Airlines and American Eagle, which were operating the plane under the banner of American Airlines. Republic and American Eagle could not immediately be reached for comment.
“I’ve traveled many times and never thought this would happen to me,” said W.H., who is reconsidering a trip to Amsterdam because of this experience. “It never crossed my mind that I would ever feel discriminated against. I felt like a criminal.”
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