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Muslim Woman Kicked Off Southwest Flight Sues

Irum Abassi, speaking at a news conference outside Lindbergh Field about how she got kicked off a Southwest Airlines plane.
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Above: Irum Abassi, speaking at a news conference outside Lindbergh Field about how she got kicked off a Southwest Airlines plane.

A Muslim woman from San Diego is suing Southwest Airlines for discrimination.

Irum Abassi, a U.S citizen who emigrated from Pakistan more than a decade ago, was wearing an Islamic head scarf when she was kicked off a plane on March 13 at Lindbergh Field. A flight attendant had said she overhead Abassi making suspicious comments.

The mother of three was on a flight from San Diego to San Jose when she was asked to get off her cell phone. She then said, "I have to go." But the flight attendant thought she said, "It's a go."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations-California filed the lawsuit on her behalf on Thursday in federal court in San Diego. It's seeking unspecified damages for emotional distress.

Her attorney James McElroy said the flight crew deemed her suspicious and refused to allow her to take the flight.

"Suspicions were aroused because of her religion," McElroy said. "She would not have been removed from the plane if she had been a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman."

Abassi was quickly cleared by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), but was not allowed to get back on the same plane. She was placed on a later flight, which caused her to miss part of an experiment in her psychology master's program at San Jose State University, according to McElroy. Because of the delay, she was unable to publish her thesis, cutting into her job prospects, he said.

"The incident still haunts me," said Abbasi, a mother of three who made few comments at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. The damages she is seeking in the lawsuit were unspecified.

The airline apologized. But Abassi believes flight attendants need to do a better job and wants the company to retrain crew members. She is also pushing for a full investigation into the matter.

Also this year, the airline removed Green Day singer Billy Joe Armstrong and a University of New Mexico football player for wearing pants that were too baggy. A couple of years ago, a woman was taken off a San Diego flight for wearing clothing deemed to be too revealing.

Last week, Southwest Airlines escorted two women off a flight for kissing.

In an e-mailed statement, the airline's Chris Mainz said Abbasi was given apologies for her inconvenience and her concerns were addressed "in good faith."

"In this case, our employees raised a safety concern based on the customer's behavior, and we had a duty to thoroughly address those concerns before clearing the customer to travel," Mainz said.

"We have a vast, diverse workforce, and we celebrate diversity among our employees and our customers," he said. "We do not discriminate against anyone for any reason, and we've been recognized as a leader for our diversity and care for all of our customers throughout our 40 years of service."

Officials with the San Diego Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations said they hoped Southwest and other airlines re-examine their policies on removing passengers.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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