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On 24 January 2020, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) fined Delta Airlines $50,000 for the removal of three Muslim passengers in 2016. The DOT order stated that the airline had “engaged in discriminatory conduct” that violated Federal law: “although an airline has the legal authority to refuse to transport an individual that it decides is unsafe, Federal law prohibits any airline decision to refuse to transport that is based on the person’s race, color, national origin, religion, ethnicity, or sex.”
The order was made based on two incidents. In the first, a pilot for Delta ordered a Muslim couple returning from Paris for their ten-year anniversary off of the plane. “Mrs. X,” as she is identified in the order, “was wearing a head scarf at the time.” Apparently, their presence made another passenger uncomfortable, and she reported them to a flight attendant, stating that Mr. X “inserted something plastic into his watch and was “doing something with it” and that the couple was “fidgety, nervous, and sweating.” The flight attendant who received the complaint noted that when she passed Mr. X, he had been texting and used the word “Allah” multiple times.
The pilot was informed and contacted Delta’s Corporate Security, who advised them that the couple were American citizens and that they were cleared to fly. The pilot still did not let them on the flight, citing the comfort of the flight attendants.
The second incident involved another Muslim passenger, identified as Mr. A, who was determined to be suspicious because other passengers saw him “making significant eye contact” with a passenger of “similar ethnicity” and receiving a small package from him. Mr. A was allowed on the flight but as the plane was taxiing, the pilot decided to turn around and force Mr. A onto a later flight.
Delta has denied that they engaged in discriminatory conduct. They did state that their “best customer service was not reflected” during the incidents but that they “disagree with the Department of Transportation’s contention that Delta engaged in discriminatory conduct.” Delta maintains that the pilots acted on observations of behaviour, rather than identity.
The DOT ordered Delta to “cease and desist” engaging in discriminatory conduct, to have mandatory civil rights training for all crew members involved in the incidents, to revise its policies on secondary screening, and to pay $50,000 to the U.S. Treasury.
It is refreshing to see a governmental organization address an issue of discrimination; it sends a signal that incidents like this will not be tolerated. However, this is little more than a slap on the wrist to Delta, a company worth $40 billion, and which was made to pay a $750,000 fine for lengthy tarmac delays. Furthermore, according to their attorney, Mr. and Mrs. X were interested in preventing treatment like this from happening to other Muslims. Given that they order only mandated civil rights training for those involved, there is no guarantee that these incidents will not be repeated.
The fine that the DOT ordered should have been higher and the mandated civil rights training more extensive; furthermore, the company should have been required to issue an apology to Mr. and Mrs. X as well as Mr. A. Part of the issue with these incidents is that they are humiliating and degrading, and a company which truly had the best interests of its clients in mind would apologize.