Washington, D.C. – Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), a member of the Homeland Security Committee and the Aviation Subcommittee in the House, and a former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said today that she will seek a hearing on airline practices following the expulsion of eight American citizens and a permanent legal resident from an AirTran flight at Reagan National Airport on New Year’s Day.
Apparently, remarks concerning the safest place to sit on a plane, from a member of the group traveling to Orlando for a religious retreat, were overheard by two teens and passed on, and all the passengers were required to disembark and go through security again.
“We are left to wonder whether the humiliation to the targeted passengers and the inconvenience to the others on AirTran would have occurred if the same words had come from a person in jeans or a business suit instead of Americans wearing garments associated with the Islamic faith,” Norton said.
The refusal of AirTran to rebook the passengers even after they were cleared by FBI agents or to refund their fare, “added insult to their injury,” she said. The airline apologized and agreed to a refund and return tickets only after the incident ballooned and received national and international attention.
The Congresswoman said: “The security reasons given by AirTran would be laughable if they were not so ignorantly off the mark. Repeated reports of similar incidents among the airlines demonstrate wholesale confusion about how to judge hearsay and other impressions from passengers and airline personnel about risks to security, and how to respond.
“Airline personnel could be valuable, additional eyes and ears to existing security. However, continuing incidents that humiliate some passengers and cause serious delays and difficulty for others show that the airlines are so clueless that many situations involving actual security risks could pass them by.
“Left to their own devices, the airlines are allowing amateurs, posing as qualified security personnel, to make high-stakes decisions, an invitation to abuse based on an individual’s faith, ethnicity, or race.
“The Congress has an obligation to get to the bottom of these incidents, which smack of deliberate and clumsy discrimination and to offer guidance.”