Flying While Muslim or Arab: Know Your Rights As An Airline Passenger. InshAllah.

Civil Rights


It’s no secret that now is not a popular time to be Muslim or Arab in America. Unfortunately, that doesn’t only matter if we place stock in popularity contests.

The repercussions are impacting these communities in different ways — including our ability to travel and move about freely without fear of being profiled or subjected to excessive scrutiny.  

Hate crimes statistics against minority religious and ethnic groups indicate alarming levels of bigotry and intolerance during the current election season.

The airline industry has proven susceptible to it, as employees across the board seem eager for any excuse to kick particularly Arabs and Muslims off their flights.

Last week, media headlines highlighted two separate incidents involving Southwest Airlines employees removing Muslim or Arab passengers from their planes for apparently ridiculous reasons.

On Wednesday, a Maryland Muslim woman was ordered off the plane after asking a passenger to swap seats with her. The passenger agreed, but despite Southwest’s open seating policy for passengers, a nearby flight attendant objected without giving a reasonable explanation.

The Muslim passenger was humiliated as airport police escorted her back to the gate. There, police were told there was no legitimate reason why she could not fly. Hours later, she was booked on a later flight to her destination.

In a separate incident, an Iraqi UC Berkeley student was removed from the plane after a fellow passenger reported him for speaking in Arabic and saying “insh’Allah” — a common phrase amongst Muslims that translates to “God-willing.”

Ironically, Southwest’s company slogan is “You are now free to move about the country.” Apparently not if you are Arab or Muslim, is the message these communities are receiving.

By far, Southwest is not the lone offender. But it has developed a distinct reputation in some circles as the “airline for America’s bigots.”

In the past year, some dozen other cases have been reported involving various airlines including United, Spirit, and others in which passengers have allegedly been wrongly scrutinized and profiled before being forced to disembark the plane prior to takeoff.

These passengers are predominantly Muslims and Arabs, but people of other religious and ethnic communities including Sikhs have also been impacted.

In too many of these cases, passengers were removed from planes or denied service out of “an abundance of caution” or in response to alleged racial or religious profiling by flight crew members and other passengers.

Most Americans don’t consider flying to be among their favorite pastimes. Some are downright terrified of it. The clinical term for this phobia is aviophobia.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, while 25 percent of Americans experience mild to moderate anxiety at the prospect of boarding a plane, some 20 million Americans suffer from the potentially debilitating fear it induces.

This, coupled with the prevalence of Islamophobia and suspicion especially towards Muslims and Arabs, can create a dilemma for travelers who are automatically scapegoated because of their skin tone, physical appearance, attire, or native language.

No one is immune to fear, but one traveler’s anxieties, prejudices, and phobias must not interfere with or violate another traveler’s civil rights.

America’s largest Muslim civil rights group has published helpful “Know Your Rights” guidelines for airline passengers. Hopefully you won’t need to reference this advice, but it is useful to have handy just in case. You know, Inshallah.

Your Rights As An Airline Passenger

As an airline passenger, you are entitled to courteous, respectful and non-stigmatizing treatment by airline and security personnel.

It is illegal for law enforcement officials to perform any stops, searches, detentions, or removals based solely on your race, religion, national origin, sex, or ethnicity.

If you believe you have been treated in a discriminatory manner, you should:

1.Ask for the names and ID number of all persons involved in the incident. Be sure to write down this information. 

2.Ask to speak to a supervisor. 

3.Politely ask if you have been singled out because of your name, looks, dress, race, ethnicity, faith, or national origin. 

4.Politely ask witnesses to give you their names and contact information.

5.Write a statement of facts immediately after the incident. Be sure to include the flight number, the flight date and the name of the airline.

6.Contact CAIR to file a report. If you are leaving the country, leave a detailed message with the information above at 202-488-8787 or at

It is important to note the following:

1.A customs agent has the right to stop, detain and search every person and item.

2.Screeners have the authority to conduct a further search of you or your bags.

3.A pilot has the right to refuse to fly a passenger if he or she believes the passenger is a threat to the safety of the flight. The pilot’s decision must be reasonable and based on observations, not stereotypes. 

No-Fly List and Selectee List

Individuals experiencing difficulties during travel at airports, train stations or U.S. borders may be on either the no-fly or selectee list. It is very difficult to determine if you are on one of these lists.

You may be on the selectee list if you are unable to use the internet or the airport kiosks for automated check-in and instead have to check in at the ticketing counter. You should eventually be permitted to fly.

The no-fly list, on the other hand, prohibits individuals from flying at all. If you are able to board an airplane, regardless of the amount of questioning or screening, then you are not on the no-fly list.

If you are constantly subjected to advanced screening or are prevented from boarding your flight, you should file a complaint with DHS TRIP at

Most people who file with DHS TRIP are not actually on a watch list and that service can resolve most problems. Contact CAIR to file a report at 202-488-8787 or if you are experiencing difficulties traveling.


Follow Zainab Chaudry on Twitter: [Source: Huffington Post, 4/19/20]