'Random brown guy' gets tossed from flight after playing with phone
An eyewitness account of a Delta passenger getting booted from a flight in Orlando has struck a nerve on social media—and is adding fuel to a growing debate over perceptions of widespread profiling aboard airplanes and in airports across the country.
A Delta representative told Vocativ that the man was removed from a New York City-bound plane on Monday after he allegedly refused to stop using his cell phone, forcing the plane to turn around before takeoff. But a fellow traveler seated near him in first class believes that the man's phone had nothing to do with why he was taken off the plane.
"If that's their reason, why didn't they report or kick me off?" said Jonathan Gottfried, who says he was also on his phone at the time—live-tweeting the episode, which he believed was racially motivated.
Though we can't confirm his version of events, his interpretation of the incident would make it the latest in a series of increasingly publicized occurrences where airlines have been accused of profiling men and women with brown skin who are trying to fly.
Southwest Airlines grabbed headlines in November after passengers aboard two separate flights refused to fly with Muslim and Arabic-speaking men. Weeks later, a Sikh mother was forced to show her breast pump to a Delta employee before she was allowed to board her flight to Los Angeles. And on Monday, as the fracas in Florida unfolded, four Brooklyn men filed a $9 million lawsuit against American Airlines, claiming they were kicked off a flight because they looked "too Muslim."
In an interview with Vocativ on Tuesday, Gottfried, the man who live-tweeted the incident, stood by his initial claims that the man was profiled. He said that the ejected passenger, who had brown skin and could be perceived to be Muslim, appeared to arouse the suspicion of a woman seated in their first-class section before departure. Unable to take her eyes off the man, the woman began silently exchanging handwritten notes with her husband, who was seated across the aisle from her, Gottfried said.
The couple's puzzling behavior aroused Gottfried's own suspicions, he said. "It's hard to believe that the woman was not stereotyping" the man, Gottfried said.
The back-and-forth notes continued for several minutes while the man, unaware of what was going on, used his phone. Finally, the woman scribbled a long note on her boarding pass and handed it to a flight attendant, who then showed the note to other members of the flight crew, according to Gottfried. One of the attendants picked up a flight phone as the others continued to keep an eye on the man, he said.
"I never saw them talk to him individually, especially not in any urgent manner," Gottfried said.
The plane eventually turned around. At the gate, the brown-skinned man was asked to leave the plane for questioning, Gottfried said. He never got back on the flight.
Michael Thomas, a Delta spokesman, dismissed any suggestion that the man's removal was on account of his appearance. He added that two other people on the same flight were also kicked off for using their phones. Thomas did not provide any additional details about the passengers, other than at least one of them was able to board a later flight to New York.
"The flight crew and captain of the aircraft elected to return to the gate and remove three individuals after they failed to comply with the flight attendant's request that they discontinue the use of their cell phones," Thomas said in a written statement.
By Tuesday, Gottfried's remarks on Twitter had been retweeted nearly 1,800 times and generated more than a hundred shocked and angry comments.
Gottfried's reporting of the incident also prompted Anil Dash, a noted tech writer and entrepreneur, to pen his own personal account of how he's been racially profiled at airports and aboard planes many times.
"For those of us who fly while brown, there is always someone in the security line with us who thinks we're a threat," he wrote in a piece published on Medium that he later shared to his 575,000 Twitter followers. "Our fellow passengers? They feel like they're being heroic when they carefully scrutinize my iPhone charger in my bag."
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