Update: In a statement, American Airlines says it takes the allegations seriously and is investigating. The company's full remarks have been posted below.
In June, Abdulaziz Al Mana, a medical resident at Jackson Memorial Hospital, was on an American Airlines flight from Miami to Washington, D.C., to visit his wife when he noticed the woman seated beside him started to get antsy. As the plane began taxiing to the runway, the woman slipped a note to the flight attendant. Soon after, the captain made an announcement that the plane would be turning around due to a passenger emergency.
Before Al Mana realized what was happening, security officers boarded the aircraft and escorted him off the plane. Law enforcement officers questioned the doctor for an hour before ultimately concluding he was no risk. Al Mana then learned why he'd been yanked off his flight.
"Essentially, what happens is this woman overheard him talk to his wife before the flight," Al Mana's lawyer, Oscar Gomez, says. "He said to his wife on the phone, 'OK, honey, I'll see you on the other side.' Obviously, he meant it like, 'When I turn my phone back on, I'll see you when I land.'"
But instead, the woman beside Al Mana misread his innocuous comment, leading authorities to interrogate the doctor as if he were a threat.
"He was very shook up," Gomez tells New Times. "He felt humiliated."
Last week, Al Mana filed a lawsuit against American Airlines in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. He says the airline racially discriminated against him due to his Saudi Arabian heritage and Muslim faith.
"No passenger or agent of AA actually observed any safety concerns or contentious communications with [Al Mana], let alone any altercations or reasons to cause concern, except for the fact that [Al Mana] appeared to be Arabian, Middle Eastern, and/or Muslim," the complaint says.
American Airlines has not yet responded to a message from New Times seeking comment. However, in a Twitter thread about the incident, the company wrote, "Safety for our customers and crew is always of the utmost importance."
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Even after investigators determined the woman's complaint against Al Mana was baseless, the doctor says he was unfairly treated by American. Instead of simply letting him reboard his original flight, the airline forced him to take another flight five hours later, according to the lawsuit.
More concerning, Al Mana now worries he could be named on a secret no-fly list or something similar. According to Gomez, part of Al Mana's reason for filing the suit is so he can subpoena federal records to determine if he was placed on any watch lists as a result of the June incident.
"He's just a normal person — there was nothing to be suspicious about," Gomez says. "He was just embarrassed by the whole thing."
Update: American Airlines has released the following statement to New Times.
"Our professional crews are there to ensure the safety and comfort of all customers as well as a positive travel experience, and we take these allegations very seriously. We received the complaint earlier this week, and our team is investigating."