Southwest Airlines Kicked Muslim Woman Off Flight for Changing Seats

A Muslim woman was kicked off of her Southwest flight when she switched seats with another passenger.

She was connecting in Chicago, took a middle seat, and she asked if the passenger in the aisle seat would switch. That’s the strangest thing in the story, that an aisle seat passenger was willing to take a middle seat. I imagine that the passenger in the aisle and the one in the window were traveling together, and hoped that by leaving the middle empty they’d get a free seat between them — but that their ultimate preference was to sit together.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737

A flight attendant instructed the passenger that she wouldn’t be allowed to change to the aisle. When asked why, the flight attendant kicked her off the flight.

Airport police then escorted Adbulle – who is of Somalian descent and was wearing a hijab, or headscarf – to the ticket counter, where she waited several hours for a later flight, Chaudry said.

The only reason offered for the ejection was the flight attendant’s comfort with the woman who was wearing a hijab.

Police asked Southwest Airlines attendant at the gate whether there was any reason why Ms Abdulle should not be allowed onto the flight and continue with her trip to Seattle. ‘The reply was no, that she does not feel comfortable.’

Interior of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737

Southwest has refused an explanation for the incident other than to stand by the decision claiming “our employees followed proper procedures in response to this customer’s actions while onboard the aircraft”.

Now, she was a connecting passenger who actually originated at Washington National. If she were a terrorist she’d have done something on her DC – Chicago flight not her onward connection to Seattle.

The passenger asks for:

  1. An apology
  2. A refund
  3. A commitment to train employees so this doesn’t happen again

Here’s the press conference summing up the woman’s version of events:

Do you believe this was reasonable? Do you have sympathy for passengers ‘flying while Muslim’ in the U.S.?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I suspect there is more to the story. But if the Somali woman’s account is entirely accurate, then the flight attendant should be fired and Southwest should apologize and provide significant compensation to the Somali woman.

  2. Ridiculous, as Southwest doesn’t *even have assigned seating*. What exactly does one seat enable over another anyway? Easier access to the aisle?

    If people are this scared because of a headscarf, the terrorists have won.

    Clearly, the passenger should have taken the nonstop DCA-SEA on Alaska instead of a Southwest flight with a stopover in MDW…

  3. I have never seen one of these reported incidents where there did not turn out to be another side to the story. More than half of the incidents are staged specifically to obtain media attention. Most of these incidents do not involve Muslims. It’s usually just a seeker of media fame or money.

  4. This is awful! So, flying while Muslim is enough to upset a flight attendant who can high-handedly kick this woman off the plane. Southwest’s response is far from adequate. @BigDaddyJ is right: if people are this scared of a headscarf, the terrorists have won.

  5. I tend to find that the average flight attendant isn’t trained to manage the ‘absolute power’ they are given onboard a flight. Whether we argue they should have this power or be better trained in managing their response to human behavior, the status quo is unacceptable. Unless they lose the PR contest, then the FAs and crew will continue to exercise this power because they won’t be sanctioned.

    There should be a study to determine whether non-discrimination protections should be applied to this power. So often it feels the power is selectively applied, usually without self awareness and out of fear. They aren’t trained well (if at all), and their should be some responsibility by airlines to demonstrate non-discriminatory outcomes in reporting.

  6. Sounds ridiculous, has to be more to it. Waiting for other pax on the flight to come forward with a 3rd person perspective.

  7. Yet another story of some bigoted flight attendant abusing their power. If there isn’t more to this story then the flight attendant should be fired and the airline should be ashamed of itself. The bigotry towards muslims has gotten out of hand and if these are all the facts is there anyone that really doubts that the only reason this woman was removed from the plane because she was wearing a hijab?

  8. I have experienced WN’s (aka Nazi airlines as my husband calls them) flight attendant’s use of absolute power and have no doubt that this woman was discriminated against for “flying while Muslim”. While I still fly WN (for short hop flights where I need easy cancel policies) I make it a point not to engage at all with the flight attendants. WN is the worst when it comes to giving their FA’s unbridled power and I hope enough stories come out that pressure WN into reigning in these little “Hitlers.”

  9. This is terrible! This has gotten out of contril. If anyone is uncomfortable flying with someone then the person who is uncomfortable should get off the plane and wait several hours for the passengers they feel more comfortable flying with.

  10. Betty, I can’t square your report with my experience in well over 1000 flights on Southwest. I have never seen a flight attendant abuse his or her authority. Not once. If there were a systemic problem I would have seen it.

  11. Years ago a Southwest flight attendant had me removed from a flight for dropping an “F bomb” in conversation with another passenger. I was not allowed to re-board/fly until I apologized to the flight attendant. Couldn’t have been about security, as apologizing certainly would not make me less threatening. It was a power trip, pure and simple.

  12. There is no substitute for experienced, professional flight crews. If this incident is true, as reported here, there are significant problems in the training and leadership of Southwest personnel. Failures here on many levels.

  13. Total flying while Muslim. The flight attendant should be fired. Terrible for the woman who simply wanted to change her seat!

  14. reminds me of all the ‘eating in a restaurant while black’ concocted racist notes on receipts bs $/attention seeking malarkey we’ve seen thru the years.

    i am NOT a fan of many US flight attendants- as a whole, they’re awful. so it’s an odd case where i’m defending any of them. with that said, anyone who thinks that the women’s version is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.

    more likely, she’s read some of the recent boardingarea blog posts about ‘flying while muslim’ and created a stir just to get tossed so she could have her press conference.

    the truth is the most villainized group that can’t get away with anything, gets no sympathy, no benefit of the doubt and is guilty until proven innocent is…. yep, white males- the source of all that is wrong in the world (or so i’ve heard for roughly the past 20 years non-stop).

  15. Being nearly surrounded by camera-wielding citizens has caused police to have second thoughts about abuse and summary street executions of black citizens. Flyers need to pull out their cell phones to get video of these incidents and make these tyrants web celebrities. An incident like this would have a million views in no time and the airline could no longer cover up and ignore like the police officials once did. Plus everywhere the tyrants went for years there would be snickers and people pointing them out.

  16. @greg the idiot. are you one of those ashamed white liberal idiots who believes any and all left wing propaganda? summary execution of blacks…. oh stfu. delve into the stats- a lot more ‘summary executions of poor WHITE men than black as a % of arrests- the white men just don’t have Obama, Sharpton and the media to make it about race, you idiot.

    you want to be outraged…. focus on the black on black murders- now that’s a REAL number that is appalling. now… back to your marathon watching Bernie highlights on youtube…

  17. If these people were terrorists, they should’ve been stopped by the TSA, so it should be assumed that anyone who actually clears security to get to the boarding gate is not a terrorist.

  18. I have sympathy for her.
    Just like antisemitism is illegal, antimuslim should also (be a word and) outlawed!

  19. Common this is America…what happen to freedom of religion! This is outrageous and is not right! Fire the flight attendant and make it right. I’m a customer and I don’t approve this!!!

  20. @nsx @ flyertalk – you have had your experiences and I have mine. You seem to be implying that because you have not seen this that somehow my experience doesn’t count, didn’t happen or was my fault. WN provided me with the most AWFUL flight I have ever flown in decades of flying. Just because you haven’t personally experienced it does not mean it doesn’t exist. Since you seem to be a “super duper” WN flyer (at over 1000 flights) perhaps you are treated differently.

    I hope you never experience what I went through. No one – even people I dont’ agree with deserve to be treated like they are a “peon” by the “waiter” (refuse to call that person a flight attendant as he certainly wasn’t professional).

  21. Too many airline staff are racists and on a power trip simply because they have the power to abuse their positions with no repercussions. One time I flew LAS-DEN-YEG with my family and was informed that my connection was not possible due to the LAS-DEN flight being delayed. The flight ended up arriving in Denver on time and my Family proceeded to the gate to see if we could connect on our original itinerary. The Denver United woman ground staff was rude and made no offer to help us to get on our initial flight connection-she merely told us the flight was full and other people were on stand by. My wife did not feel it fair that we were bumped with no effort by this obstinate United ground personnel to even may an effort to help. My wife went to a different gate and another United ground staff was kind enough to assist us to get on the flight. During boarding the, first United ground staff who refused to assist us collected our boarding passes and were surprised of our success in getting on- she made a surly remark “If it was my choice, you would not be on this flight”. Our family merely boarded- we simply wanted to get on the flight.
    Since we are a minority culture living in a North American society, this is not the first time that something like this has happened. Conclusion from this experience – for every bad apple on this
    earth , I would like to believe there are ten other good ones!

  22. Betty, I didn’t and could not draw any conclusions about your report other than that it is not part of some pattern of systematic abuse by Southwest FA’s. I said that I have never seen such a thing occur, to anyone. I am a frequent customer but it’s not like I wear a hat advertising that fact. I look like any other customer to FA’s. Incidentally I have only very rarely (a handful of times in over 1000 flights) seen disruptive passengers. 99.5% of the time everything is peachy.

    I do hope I am never mistreated on a future trip. You should patronize whatever airline treats you best, provided that they haven’t been bought by another airline you detest! In today’s market Virgin America and JetBlue have the best coach in-flight experience.

    My personal belief is that travel is a gamble and sometimes you have an unpleasant experience. Almost never is that due to company policy. It can happen on airline or in any chain’s hotel. Unlike many people I don’t hold one employee’s actions against the whole company unless that employee is highly placed. On the front lines anything can happen at any company.

  23. without the full facts it’s difficult to comment, but on face value it appears that the flight attendants actions are reasonable grounds for dismissal. IMO the passenger should complain to the DOT.

  24. Southwest does not have assigned seats. I fly Southwest frequently. It is not normal for people to ask aisle or window seat customers to trade for a middle seat. The other people in the row could have been looking at the flight attendant with “help” in their eyes. The flight attendant may have seen the lady insisting or demanding that the other passengers move. Southwest does not discriminate by age, race, gender, etc., although they will do their best to safeguard the comfort of ALL passengers, not just the ones who think they are “special.” The question always is, if any other person had behaved exactly the same as this woman, would the outcome have been the same? If you have special seating needs, talk to the customer service agent. If you’re in the C boarding group, pick a middle seat, sit down, and be nice.

  25. There’s always more to the story, folks

    “Too many airline staffs are racist”? Never met one who was to me – sometimes it’s easy for some people to perceive things that aren’t there

  26. A high school friend was flying home to visit family. He was a monk in an order started by Mother Teresa, serving in India. His plane was delayed in Chicago due to needed repairs. Passengers were offered beverages. He drank coffee. The repair process was quite lengthy. Eventually, he needed to use the restroom. More than once. He was ejected from the flight and placed on the “no fly” list, no longer permitted on any American aircraft, because he was thought to look Arabic. He is a fourth generation American Catholic Lebanese. He did not remain on the do not fly list. At the time, his cousin was our nation’s Secretary of Transportation, Ray La Hood, a former Republican Representative from Illinois.

    I suspect that perhaps those with the luxury of saying, “There are always 2 sides to every story” retain this luxury because they have not experienced such events personally. When Jews were required to were yellow stars in Nazi Germany, many believed there “must be a valid reason.”

    Bad things can only keep happening when good people stand by and do nothing. And then it happens to them.

  27. The point is, they have absolute power. Many of us are used to the days when attendants were customer service oriented. Also, lest we forget several flight attendants had their throat slit on 9/11, so I guess their trepidation by an unruly passenger might be understandable.
    You will find police have the same absolute power. You can’t win that confrontation.
    Simply secretly record the conversation and place the video on youtube, then sue the airline. Don’t try to invoke your “civil rights” on a plane, you have none.

  28. Everyone thinks there is more to the story–but it’s unlikely. It’s trump’s new America. This wasn’t even happening after 911. Why now? It’s discriminatory. My opinion: the uncomfortable passengers and flight attendants should be removed from the plane. The innocent flyer, like the economist doing math and the guy talking to his mom in arabic, and the woman who changed her seat (JHC–seriously? she changed her seat the flight attendant got huffy?) should be able to continue the flight. If I was muslim or arabic, or iranian I would be very frightened right now–dark hair and a foreign language puts you at risk — this is not acceptable. Flight attendants have become little caesars–but the passengers are worse.

  29. Sounds like discrimination suit coming. Did they ask if she was Muslim or just assume she was because of her appearance. Why did they not kick off the other passenger who was trading seats with her?

  30. Fire this employee yesterday. I hope she finds a good lawyer and is awarded the 10’s of thousands she is owed.

  31. “ Now, she was a connecting passenger who actually originated at Washington National. If she were a terrorist she’d have done something on her DC – Chicago flight not her onward connection to Seattle.”

    Fuzzy thinking there, mate

  32. I think the flight attendant said she was not comfortable with the woman. The passenger was arguing with her. The article author said it as because the woman was Muslim. You need to listen to the flight attendants. If you question what they tell you they have every right to have you removed. Their responsability is the safety of all passengers. If you argue with them you are a safety risk. I have flown Southwest southwest several dozen times. One flight I was the last to board. The only seat available was a middle seat in the back row. I’m a big guy and looked at the two women. One at the window. One on the aisle. They were both large women. I applied and asked if the wanted to sit together. They said no so I squeezed into the middle seat.. Turns out they were on a business trip together. Very snarky women. I just smiled. Stayed calm and shared my sweat with both of them. It was 112 in Phoenix that afternoon. I took half of each arm rest and laughed at the two of them all the way to Sacramento. When we were deplaning I told them both, with a smile, “perhaps one of you should have sat in the middle.” 😉

  33. @Mark
    Just curious if both of your rowmates were large, what difference would it have made if one of them took the middle seat? You would still be three large people squeezed into three medium sized seats.

  34. Outrageous! First of all, if the person didn’t want to give up the isle seat, the lady should have stayed put. To throw her off the plane because 2 jackasses thought they were being intelligent by booking the isle and window when they were clearly together. That said, the Flight Attendant had to right to throw her off. A simple explanation that if you want an asle seat, choose your sear exactly 24 hours in advance or pay the silly $17-89 dollar difference and sit in the isle.

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