The US Department of Transportation (DoT) has fined Delta Air Lines $50,000 for ordering three Muslim passengers off planes even after the company’s own security officials cleared them to travel.
Delta denied that it discriminated against the passengers in two separate incidents but agreed it could have handled the situations differently, according to a consent order released on Friday by the DoT.
The Department said the airline violated anti-bias laws by removing the passengers and ordered it to provide cultural-sensitivity training to pilots, flight attendants and customer-service agents involved in the incidents.
In one incident on July 26, 2016, a Muslim couple were removed from Delta Flight 229 at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris after a passenger told a flight attendant their behaviour made her “very uncomfortable and nervous”.
“Mrs X” was wearing a headscarf and the passenger said “Mr X” had inserted something into his watch. The flight attendant said she saw Mr X texting on his cellphone using the word “Allah” several times.
The captain then spoke with Delta’s corporate security, who said Mr and Mrs X were US citizens returning home and there were “no red flags”. However, the captain refused to let them re-board the plane.
The DoT said the captain had failed to follow Delta’s security protocol and it appeared that “but for Mr and Mrs X’s perceived religion, Delta would not have removed or denied them reboarding” of their flight.
The other case in the consent order occurred five days later in Amsterdam. Flight attendants and passengers complained about a Muslim passenger but the co-pilot saw nothing unusual about the man and Delta’s security office said his record raised no concern.
The captain prepared to begin the New York-bound flight, then returned to the gate and had the man and his bags removed and the area around his seat searched. The man was not subjected to additional screening before boarding a later flight, which the DoT said showed that his removal from the first flight was discriminatory.
‘Slap on the wrist’
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) questioned the size of the penalty.
Delta earned nearly $4.8bn last year and, for a company that profitable, “$50,000 is basically a slap on the wrist”, said Karen Dabdoub, executive director of CAIR’s Cincinnati chapter.
“But it’s a good sign that DOT is taking this seriously,” she added. “I’m glad to see that Delta received some sort of a sanction.”
The government did not explain how the size of the fine was determined but said it “establishes a strong deterrent against future similar unlawful practices by Delta and other carriers.”
The company disagreed with the government’s contention of discrimination, but “Delta does not dispute that each of these two incidents could have been handled differently,” the government said in the consent order.
Delta said that in both cases, it acted based on the passengers’ behaviour, not their identity, and its employees acted reasonably.
The Atlanta-based airline said that after the 2016 incidents it improved its procedures for investigating suspicious behaviour to make it “more collaborative and objective.”