WASHINGTON -- AirTran Airways is apologizing to nine Muslim passengers kicked off a New Year's Day flight to Florida after other passengers reported hearing a suspicious remark about airplane security.
In a statement Friday, Orlando-based AirTran said it refunded the airfare for the nine passengers and planned to reimburse them for replacement tickets they bought on another airline.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations
said the incident began when another passenger complained about something that was said while boarding.
"We were talking about seat placement," one of the detained passengers said. "We were in the back ... started talking about safest place to sit. Maybe someone gleaned into that that we were planning to do something to the plane."
One of the Muslim passengers, Kashif Irfan, told The Washington Post the confusion began when his brother was talking about the safest place to sit on an airplane.
"My brother and his wife were discussing some aspect of airport security," Irfan said. "The only thing my brother said was, 'Wow, the jets are right next to my window.'"
Irfan told the newspaper he thought he and the others were profiled because of their appearance. The men had beards and the women wore headscarves, traditional Muslim attire.
AirTran acknowledged that nine people were detained for questioning after boarding Flight 175 headed to Orlando International Airport. AirTran released the following statement:
"At departure time, the captain informed the airline that there were two federal air marshals on board who contacted local Washington law enforcement officials for a security related issue on board the aircraft involving verbal comments made by a passenger and overheard by other passengers. The airline then advised the Transportation Security Administration.
"Upon arriving at the gate and interrogating several passengers, the TSA determined that the 104 passengers on board must deplane and all passengers, crew and bags should be re-screened. After the re-screening of the passengers, crew, bags and the aircraft, 95 passengers were allowed to re-board the aircraft and nine were detained for interrogation by the local law enforcement officials and the TSA. Flight 175 departed nearly two hours late and arrived safely at its destination. AirTran Airways complied with all TSA, law enforcement and Homeland Security directives and had no discretion in the matter."
AirTran Airways spokesman Tad Hutcheson called the incident a misunderstanding but defended the company's response. He said the airline followed federal rules and did nothing wrong.
CAIR said the passengers who were detained were refused re-booking by the airline despite being cleared by federal authorities.
"The FBI agents actually cleared our names," Inayet Sahin, one of the family members kicked off the flight, told CNN. "They went on our behalf and spoke to the airlines and said, 'There is no suspicious activity here. They are clear. Please let them get on a flight so they can go on their vacation,' and they still refused."
Hutcheson said the passengers were given a full refund and are welcome to fly on AirTran now that the investigation is complete.
He and a federal Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman said the pilot was right to postpone the flight.
"At the end of the day, people got on and made comments they shouldn't have made on the airplane, and other people heard them," Hutcheson said. "Other people heard them, misconstrued them. It just so happened these people were of Muslim faith and appearance. It escalated, it got out of hand and everyone took precautions."
The detained passengers were assisted by the FBI in arranging flights on another airline hours later. Some of them felt they were the victims of profiling.
"It's not like we used words like terrorist or bomb," one of the passengers said. "People sometimes hear what they want to hear."
Irfan, 34, is an anesthesiologist and his brother is a lawyer. Both live in Alexandria, Va., with their families, and were born in Detroit. They were traveling with their wives, Irfan's sister-in-law and Irfan's three sons, ages 7, 4 and 2. A family friend also was traveling with the group to a religious retreat in Florida. They eventually made it to their destination on a US Airways flight.
Federal officials ordered the rest of the passengers from the plane and re-screened them before allowing the flight to depart.
One of the passengers removed, Abdur Razack Aziz, said he will consider a lawsuit.
AirTran also apologized to the 95 passengers whose flight was delayed by the incident.
Copyright Associated Press / NBC New York