An Open Letter to the Airline Industry

In a global society, air travel is one of the mediums by which the world turns. It must never be a resource that is denied to someone on the basis of their religion, race, ethnicity, country of origin or any of their identities. 

In the past week, this mandate of fairness has been grossly violated multiple times. Acts of bias by employees of airlines have caused disruption, embarrassment, hurt and anger. We call on the airline industry to address acts of profiling and bias, both as they occur and with training and education that prevent this problem from worsening. We therefore submit this open invitation to the airline industry to address the challenges of balancing rational fears with irrational bias.
 
The Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding is a secular, nonsectarian organization that neither promotes nor denigrates religion. For over ten years, we’ve worked with global companies to effectively manage their multi-religious and non-believing employees and customers.
 
Sadly, we have been predicting an uptick in acts of bias against Muslims or those perceived as being Muslim in the run-up to the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The King hearings and the hate talk that followed the death of Osama bin Laden showed we were right.
 
Such anti-Muslim sentiment and bias is now an endemic societial challenge, and we saw its harsh manifestation in the airline industry this week. In Tennessee, two imams were removed from a flight – after they were cleared by security – because the pilot objected to them on the basis of their Islamic attire. Days later, another two imams suffered a similar fate in New York City, with one being removed from one flight and transferred to another and the second being denied boarding permanently. The destination of all four passengers? A conference on how to proactively address Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.
 
This is not the first incident of religious bias in the airline industry – recall the “six imams” case in 2006, where six imams were removed from a flight in Minneapolis and interrogated for several hours. Nor are Muslims the only victims of religious profiling. In the past year, multiple flights have been diverted after staff became suspicious of Jewish passengers’ practice of wrapping tefillin – a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Bible, connected with leather straps that are wound around the arm/hand and head – as part of ritual prayer.
 
The industry must proactively and aggressively address these events.
 
Compassionately, two of the profiled imams have responded to the incidents this week by requesting sensitivity training for pilots. We add our voices to theirs, calling on the industry to institute a comprehensive training program, especially for the members of its workforce who have direct contact with religiously and culturally diverse customers. Clearly, some level of education and awareness-raising is needed to stem the flow of these incidents and prevent future profiling episodes. While we recognize that there are legitimate safety concerns when it comes to air travel, no person should ever be mistreated merely on the basis of religious dress, or forced from a plane because staff does not understand his or her religious practices.
 
Respectfully yours,
Joyce Dubensky
Executive Vice President & CEO, Tanenbaum