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Did a Southwest Flight Attendant Mistreat a Muslim Passenger Because She Was Wearing a Headscarf?

Did a Southwest Flight Attendant Mistreat a Muslim Passenger Because She Was Wearing a Headscarf?

A prominent journalist for Al Jazeera’s English language international service has called out Southwest Airlines, accusing a flight attendant of mistreating his wife and suggesting (although not explicitly saying) it was down to the fact that she is “brown” and was wearing a headscarf.  The nasty spat happened on Sunday evening at the end of Thanksgiving with British journalist Mehdi Hasan saying it had ruined the holiday for his family.

Mehdi and his family were travelling between Houston and Washington DC on Southwest Airlines flight WN5539 when his wife “politely” asked other passengers to move seats so that their entire party could be seated together on the roughly two-hour hop between Texas and DC.

Photo Credit: Southwest Airlines

Southwest does not have issue seat assignments and asks passengers to take any open seat – an idea that has been copied by a number of low-cost carriers, although discontinued at many because it can be the cause of many a passenger complaint.  While there’s nothing to stop passengers asking to move seats, the practice is frowned upon because it can delay the boarding process and lead to ground delays that are often blamed on the flight attendants.

“Not a good look for your flight attendant on SW5539 (sic) to DC last night to loudly tell a brown woman in a headscarf she’ll be ‘escorted off the plane’ for making people feel ‘uncomfortable’,” Mehdi wrote in a Tweet to the airline after his flight had landed just under 20-minutes early.

Mehdi continued the thread, saying a flight attendant called ground staff onto the plane in order to complain “about the Muslim woman” – although it’s not clear whether Mehdi was suggesting the flight attendant had specifically complained about his wife because she was Muslim or whether he was using this term himself to describe his wife.

Some passengers sided with Medhi, with several saying the flight attendant had escalated the situation for no reason and had made the whole situation a whole lot worse than it should of been.

“Thanks @SouthwestAir for ruining the end of our Thanksgiving trip and leaving my wife in tears – because she wanted us all to sit together as a family while your flight attendant wanted to single her out and humiliate her. Thanks a lot,” he continued.

The journalist finished his thread by linking to a 2015 Guardian article in which it was alleged Southwest Airlines employees had “singled out Muslim or Middle Eastern passengers” in two separate incidents.

The question is – did the flight attendant pick on this passenger because she was Muslim or was she simply trying to enforce Southwest’s open seating policy?  Could it be that she had overreacted and ‘implicit bias’ was playing a part in her decision-making process?  Or perhaps she was just having a bad day and anyone who tested her would have received the same treatment?

Maybe she acted appropriately and in line with her training – after all, there are two sides to every story.

“We are working to collect information based on the recent customer claim made on social,” a spokesperson for Southwest has said of the complaint.

“We also are in contact with the customer who originated the tweet.  We take these situations very seriously and are dedicated to ensuring any issue raised is thoroughly investigated and reviewed in a timely manner,” the statement continued.

In October, a Southwest flight attendant got himself in hot water after calling out a Trump supporter on social media – having been reported by one of his own Facebook friends.  Less than a month later and Southwest was making headlines after a flight attendant alleged two of its pilots had set up a secret camera in an onboard lavatory.

The Phoenix-based flight attendant is suing both Southwest and the two pilots but the airline and the pilots union strenuously denies the claims.