A north suburban Muslim couple said they plan to file a formal complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration after United Airlines failed to acknowledge that their family’s removal from a flight last month at O’Hare International Airport amounted to discrimination.
Mohamad and Eaman Shebley, of Libertyville, said in an exclusive interview with the Tribune that the way they and their three children were treated by a flight crew went beyond poor customer service. The couple said they were humiliated when their family was ushered off a plane bound for Washington, D.C., on March 20 after seeking help with their child’s booster seat.
“Something doesn’t add up to me,” said Eaman Shebley, who recorded her family’s encounter with a SkyWest flight crew as they prepared to take off for a spring-break trip to the nation’s capital. “We weren’t rude. We didn’t do anything wrong. I’m in customer service. This is not normal for someone to treat someone this way. I felt singled out right from the get-go.”
Earlier this month, the Council on American Islamic Relations filed a complaint with United on behalf of the family. The airline responded by offering the family reimbursement for their flights and any expenses incurred for the inconvenience. It also offered them five free round-trip tickets anywhere in the continental U.S.
“It’s insulting,” Mohamad Shebley said Friday. “They tried to brush it off and said there was nothing wrong. Just a rude employee.”
The removal from the flight came after the parents requested an additional harness for their youngest daughter’s booster seat, which they previously had tried to check at the gate. Unable to attach a label to the seat, a United gate agent inside the airport instructed the parents to take the seat on board instead, Mohamad Shebley said.
As the family settled into seats near the back of the plane and the parents made sure their son and older daughter were buckled in, Shebley said he asked a flight attendant for a “five-point harness,” as advertised on the airline’s website.
According to Shebley, the flight attendant didn’t help and walked away. Moments later another attendant came by and told the parents they couldn’t have the booster seat. They removed the seat and stored it. The pilot then came out of the cockpit and asked the family to leave the plane.
Before disembarking, the mother, who wears an Islamic head scarf, asked the pilot if the family’s removal was a “discriminatory decision.” The pilot responded that it was a “safety of flight issue.”
The parents then left the plane with their children so as to not further frighten them or inconvenience the other passengers for whom the flight was delayed longer than an hour.
“We are aware of the perception of Muslim-Americans. That was in the back of my mind,” Shebley said. “In the front of my mind, I have my family with me, including my little children. I didn’t want to traumatize them. We tried as much as possible to be in control, even though it was a completely irrational situation.”
United Airlines said it stood by its original statement that the family was asked to leave the SkyWest flight, operating as United Express from Chicago, “because of concerns about their child’s safety seat, which did not comply with federal safety regulations.”
The couple and their children completed their journey on a later flight where nothing was said about the booster seat. They booked their return to Chicago on a different airline. They have asked for a formal apology, corrective action for the employees involved, and reimbursement for that return flight and accommodations they had to book to adjust their travel plans.
This is not the first time United has been accused of mistreating Muslim customers. Last May, Northwestern University chaplain Tahera Ahmad was flying from Chicago to Washington, D.C., on a United flight operated by Shuttle America when a flight attendant refused to bring her an unopened can of soda. When Ahmad pointed out that another passenger had received one, the flight attendant abruptly opened the soda and told Ahmad it was so she would not use it as a weapon.
Adopting the hashtag #UnitedforTahera, thousands tweeted messages of support and calls for a boycott after Ahmad detailed the confrontation on Facebook. The controversy ended nearly a week later with an apology from United and the company’s promise that the attendant would not work on United Express flights until she had undergone more training.
The airline also said employees would continue to receive annual cultural awareness training and that it would reach out to its Express partners, including SkyWest, to make sure their staff also receives regular sensitivity training.
According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ civil rights database, about 11 cases involving denial of service or harassment on airplanes have been reported since January 2015, including the Shebleys’. Many of them are still unresolved, a spokesman said.
As in Ahmad’s case, social media have played a role in the Shebleys’ incident. Eaman Shebley posted a video of the interaction with the plane’s crew on Facebook, where it has been viewed over 3.7 million times and shared by more than 54,000 others.
“Shame on you #unitedAirlines for profiling my family and me for no reason other than how we look and kicking us off the plane for ‘safety flight issues’ on our flight to DC for the kids spring break,” she posted. “My three kids are too young to have experienced this.”
The Shebleys said passengers seated around them expressed support and shared their names and numbers if they needed witnesses. All of those passengers either declined to be interviewed or couldn’t be reached for comment when a CAIR spokesman tried to contact them.
Lawyers for CAIR’s Chicago office said the Shebley family now is “exploring all their options,” the spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for United said the airline had not yet been told the family was rejecting the company’s offer and apology for poor customer service. “We’d like to hear back from them,” she said.
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