A Muslim family has filed a civil rights lawsuit against United Airlines after they say flight personnel forced them off a plane at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport last year.
Eaman and Mohamed Shebley, who are Lebanese-Americans and Muslims, had asked for extension straps for a booster seat when they say the airline told them their child could not be seated in the booster seat. Then, the family was told they needed to deplane.
"The Shebley family was made to feel targeted," said Maaria Mozaffar, a legislative attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "The wife wears a hijab. The husband is of Middle Eastern descent and in fact in the process of this specific scenario they were actually following proper instructions."
The encounter was captured on video that was later posted by Eaman Shebley to Facebook and shared more than 53,000 times within the last year.
In one clip, a woman identified as a flight attendant says to the family, "We’re going to ask that you step off the aircraft with all your belongings." Shebley's husband asks why, and the flight attendant replies, "Because they are investigating."
In a second video, a man tells the family they must leave the plane because "it is a safety of flight issue."
Shebley claimed in the post her family was profiled for "no reason [other] than how we look," adding that her three kids "are too young to have experienced this."
A spokesperson for the airline sent the following emailed statement soon after the incident early last year:
"We reached out to the family following their flight on March 20 to discuss their concerns. They were originally scheduled to fly on SkyWest 5811, operating as United Express from Chicago O’Hare to Washington, D.C., but we rebooked them on a later flight because of concerns about their child’s safety seat, which did not comply with federal safety regulations."
CAIR filed a three-count federal lawsuit on behalf the family Friday, alleging discrimination by United Airlines and Skywest. According to the suit, the Shebleys say, despite following directions and posing no threat, they were discriminated against for being Muslim.
In its latest statement, the airline said:
"Both SkyWest and United hold our employees to the highest standards of professionalism and have zero tolerance for discrimination. We have not yet been served with the suit and cannot comment further on this pending litigation."
CAIR said the incident was humiliating for the Shebleys.
"They started to feel like they were second rate citizens," said Executive Director Ahmed Rehab. "That anything could happen to them at any time. That the arbitrary nature of what happened could be repeated. And that feeling keeps you on edge."