Moments after boarding US Airways Flight 300 for Phoenix, Michael McCombie, a 3M sales rep from Santa Clara, Calif., jotted a note and handed it to flight attendant Terri Boatner:
"6 suspicious Arabic men on plane, spaced out in their seats. All were together, saying '... Allah ... Allah ...' cursing U.S. involvement w/Saddaam before flight. 1 in front exit row, another in first row 1st class, another in 8D, another in 22D, two in 25 E & F."
The men in question were six Muslim imams, or prayer leaders, returning home from a conference in Minneapolis. Within minutes of getting McCombie's note that November evening in 2006, the plane's captain had the men removed from the flight because of "safety concerns." Within hours, the airline reversed itself, determined that the men posed no risk, offered to book them on another flight and apologized.
Within days, though, the incident at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport had exploded into controversy. There were claims of discrimination against Muslims and calls for a boycott of the airline, while others contended the men had acted suspiciously and the airline did the right thing. The imams later sued US Airways and the Metropolitan Airports Commission, claiming they had been kicked off the flight and detained by airport police because of their religion, ethnicity and national origin. . .
When it comes to safety issues, federal air regulations give pilots wide latitude in determining who can and can't fly on their planes. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Department of Transportation warned airlines "not to target or otherwise discriminate" against passengers because of religion, race, national origin "or modes of dress that could be indicative of such classification."
The department said it had seen "several reports of airlines apparently removing passengers from flights because the passengers appeared to be Middle Eastern and/or Muslim."
Omar Mohammedi, a New York attorney who represents the imams, believes the men were discriminated against because they were Muslims of Middle Eastern descent. (MORE)