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Barred Travelers Charge 4 Airlines With Race Bias

Litigation: Passengers denied passage on post-Sept. 11 flights sue carriers on grounds of discrimination. The firms deny allegations.

June 05, 2002|LAURA LOH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four airlines were sued Tuesday by five passengers who alleged they were barred from flights after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because of racial discrimination.

The federal lawsuits against American, United, Continental and Northwest airlines were filed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Maryland and New Jersey by the American Civil Liberties Union. The airlines denied discriminating.

The plaintiffs, two of whom are of Arab descent, were ordered off planes or not allowed to board after clearing security checkpoints at airports between October and December, according to the suits.

Four of the plaintiffs are U.S. citizens and the fifth is a permanent U.S. resident. They ask for declarations that the alleged practices are illegal, court orders banning them, and in some cases, unspecified damages.

"We do not enter into this litigation lightly," said Albert Mokhiber of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a co-plaintiff in three of the lawsuits. "We do so only after extensive consultations'' with the airlines and the Department of Transportation, which have failed to produce results, Mokhiber said. The committee asked the airlines, the Department of Transportation and the pilots union to establish guidelines to prevent further discrimination.

The Transportation Department said it is investigating 31 complaints from people who have been prevented from flying since Sept. 11 and 111 complaints from passengers who said they were singled out at security screenings because of their appearance. No conclusions have been reached, according to a spokesman.

"We can't allow any passenger or crew member who feels uncomfortable with someone else to exercise veto power over our civil rights laws," said ACLU staff attorney Ben Wizner, who filed a complaint on behalf of Assem Bayaa in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Bayaa, 40, who was born in Lebanon and moved to this country in 1976, said he was told to disembark from a United Airlines plane at Los Angeles International Airport on Dec. 23 after he told a flight attendant that his final destination was Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Bayaa, an audit manager for Arthur Andersen stationed in Riyadh, said an airline employee told him the crew was uncomfortable with his presence on the flight bound for New York. He was given a boarding pass for the next flight, but declined to use it because the airline could not guarantee that he would be permitted to fly.

"I will never forget how I felt when I saw that plane leave without me," he said. "I felt as though the previous 22 years of freedom I had enjoyed in America had vanished in an instant."

United Airlines spokesman Joe Hopkins said it is against company policy to discriminate. Added Hopkins: "Behavior is another matter. If somebody is staring intently at the cockpit, for example, perhaps a person could be deplaned."

The plaintiffs in the other lawsuits include Arshad Chowdhury of Pittsburgh, who alleged he was prevented from boarding a Northwest Airlines flight in San Francisco on Oct. 23. Chowdhury, who is a Muslim of Bangladeshi descent, said the airline placed a hold on his name in a database although he had cleared several screenings.

Northwest Airlines spokesman Bill Mellon said the company has investigated Chowdhury's allegations and found that its employees "acted in accordance with [Federal Aviation Administration] security directives and federal regulations."

Chowdhury was barred because the pilot received conflicting information about whether authorities had cleared him, Mellon said. "After confirming that authorities cleared him, Northwest accommodated Mr. Chowdhury by rebooking him on a direct flight scheduled to arrive at his final destination before his originally scheduled flight," he said.

Hassan Sader, a Virginia resident who was born in Morocco, said he was asked to get off an American Airlines plane in Baltimore on Oct. 31 after a passenger complained about his presence.

American Airlines spokesman John Hotard said the company was "enormously disappointed" by the suit.

Edgardo Cureg and Michael Dasrath said they were removed from a Continental Airlines flight in Newark on New Year's Eve.

Dasrath, a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident who was born in Guyana, said he heard a passenger tell the captain, "Those brown-skinned men are behaving suspiciously." Cureg, a Filipino who lives in Tampa, Fla., and Dasrath filed separate suits. The two did not know each other before the flight.

Spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said: "Continental has a strong policy and a long-standing policy against discrimination."

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