An American Airlines Captain who describes himself as Caucasian but who was misidentified as being Middle Eastern by airport cops has accused Spokane International Airport in Washington State of racial profiling after police officers allegedly tried to ‘force’ him to wear a face mask while passing through a TSA checkpoint.
The incident took place when the federal face mask mandate was in force, but AA pilot Bahig Saliba says that airport officials should have known that there was a medical exemption written into the rules that pilots like him could take advantage of.
In a lawsuit filed in a Washington State district court earlier this week, Saliba is suing Spokane Airport and several security police officers for more than $23 million, claiming that their actions on December 6, 2021, have resulted in his indefinite suspension without pay by American Airlines.
Saliba had turned up at Spokane Airport early in the morning to work a flight to Dallas Fort Worth as the Captain of an aircraft with 150 passengers onboard. He entered the airport without a face mask on but as he was passing through the TSA security checkpoint, a security officer pulled him to one side and told him to mask up.
In a short interaction, Saliba says he tried to explain he had a mask exemption and even produced paperwork in an attempt to prove his point, but the TSA insisted on calling airport police to investigate his alleged mask mandate refusal.
Within minutes, several airport cops arrived and one of them loudly proclaimed that she was about to tell American Airlines about the situation in front passengers as they passed through the TSA checkpoint.
Saliba alleges that the police officers told AA about the fact he wasn’t wearing a mask before he had been given time to explain why he entered the terminal barefaced. He claims the cops motives were driven by racial profiling and were “determined to a punish a man of Middle Eastern heritage”.
After some time, Saliba was allowed to leave the TSA checkpoint and worked the flight to Dallas Fort Worth but by this point, American Airlines was already aware of what had happened and had arranged for Saliba to be grounded on his arrival in Texas.
Saliba was suspended and has been on unpaid leave since 2021, pending a disciplinary outcome. He faces possible termination over what occurred at Spokane Airport on December 6, 2021.
In the lawsuit, Saliba explains that he chose not to wear a face mask because doing so would restrict his breathing and, in doing so, make him medically unfit to operate an aircraft. Saliba points out that it is his responsibility to make sure he is medically git under the Federal Aviation Act and that wearing a mask would have invalidated his pilot medical certificate because it would restrict his breathing.
Saliba also points out that the TSA mask mandate had a specific exemption for people to whom wearing a face mask would create a risk to “workplace health, safety or duty”.
If he wins the lawsuit, Saliba is demanding $586,000 in compensation for loss of earnings, plus more than $23 million in punitive damages for pain and suffering for violating his constitutional rights.
American Airlines did not reply to a request for comment.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.