CHICAGO — Just how security-conscious airlines have become since the terrorist attacks was evident Thursday in a move that shocked passengers waiting to depart Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Airport officials escorted a family of Muslim passengers off a U.S. Airways jet just before take-off.
After waiting nearly 45 minutes in the terminal, an agent from airport security came onto the plane and ordered the family out. The plane immediately took off without them.
“The [security officer] came on, counted the number of people in the group and said, ‘You’ll have to come with me,'” said passenger Ed Maryon, who works in the genetics department at UW-Madison. “The father threw up his arms and said, ‘This is the second time this day.'”
Last week three Muslims were removed from an airplane after a passenger complained he was uncomfortable flying with them. Muslims have often become scapegoats since U.S. officials blamed Islamic fundamentalists for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
The airplane’s crew refused to offer details of the family’s removal, but hinted that this time it was the captain himself who was uncomfortable.
“He has to feel safe, and he just wasn’t comfortable,” said one flight attendant, who refused to be named. “If you want to know about the red tape, you’ll have to talk to management.”
No passenger expressed clear concern about the family’s presence on the airplane.
“I could see it was just a family,” Maryon said. “I didn’t seriously feel threatened.”
The family included two boys no older than nine, three teenage boys, and a mother and father.
Badger Herald reporters caught up with the family in Philadelphia and found out they were offered no real explanation for the removal.
“They said, ‘Because you have a lot of luggage,'” said the father, Adel Baker. “I was surprised, because twice we entered [an] airplane and then had to get off.”
Baker and his family, who were in the process of moving to the United States from Syria, said he thought the procedure was normal.
“I asked [an airport worker] if this is the first case, and she said no,” Baker said. “I said to my family [it was] because of the accident that happened in America, perhaps.”
Baker said the incident spoiled his excitement for a new life in the United States.
“We came to America to live in a free society,” he said. “This makes me feel like there is no freedom.”
U.S. Airways gave no comment, but a pilot with the organization said this procedure is completely legal, yet hard to justify.
“The captain is in final authority,” said the pilot, who wished to remain unnamed. “If he is in the least bit concerned, it is his duty not to take off.”
The pilot said this can range from personal issues to mechanical issues, but the result is always the same.
“It doesn’t matter who it is,” he said. “You just don’t want trouble, now more than ever.”
Although the airlines did not give a full explanation to the family, there was undoubtedly a serious concern, the pilot said.
“It was something other than just their name, race or religion,” he said. “There’s always something else. If I do that, I can expect my company to come down on me hard, so I would not do that frivolously. [Their captain] is going to have trouble with the company, and he is going to have to justify that decision.”