DALLAS: American Airlines' PR team was forced to respond to yet
another crisis on December 25, when an Arab-American US Secret Service
agent was not permitted to board one of its flights.
But the airline has come out fighting, criticizing media coverage
surrounding the incident. American was already coping with problems
arising from the activities of a passenger on a flight bound from Paris
to Miami three days earlier, who tried to ignite plastic explosives in
his shoes while on board.
The Secret Service agent was already in his seat when he was asked to
submit to additional checks. The pilot subsequently removed the agent
from the flight, and he eventually took a later flight.
According to Federal Air Regulation, the captain can deny boarding to
anyone thought to be a security risk. But American has been harshly
criticized for the incident by both media and advocacy organizations
like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR has demanded
an apology from the airline.
"We are concerned that American Airlines would arbitrarily deny boarding
to a Muslim passenger, particularly someone who has one of our nation's
highest security clearances, merely because of his religion or
ethnicity," read a letter from CAIR to American's chairman Donald
President Bush told reporters that he would be "madder than heck" if
racial profiling was found to be the cause of the incident, and said
that he had told the agent he was proud to have him as a protector. The
Secret Service confirmed that it is investigating the episode.
The airline's PR team said it has responded to media inquiries by giving
a full account of the incident.
"We explained, in excruciating detail to reporters who called, precisely
what occurred at the time of departure with not one, but three sets of
improperly completed paperwork being given to the captain, who must be
notified if anyone with a loaded weapon is on board," wrote Tim Doke, VP
of corporate communications for American Airlines, in an e-mail.
"After repeated attempts to resolve the situation, we ended up with
someone who has been described to me as very irate, nervous, irrational,
and angry, carrying a gun, wanting to travel on our plane," Doke
Doke criticized a column by Colbert King that appeared in The Washington
Post, in which King said he would eschew American in the future,
particularly because the airline had allowed a passenger with plastic
explosives on board, but caused a legitimate security agent to leave the
"King's rather inflammatory piece ... was written despite knowing the
facts," Doke wrote. "He has since obtained additional reports, and we
hope will be producing a more balanced column on the incident." King has
since confirmed that he'll be writing a follow-up piece.
Doke did not restrict his criticism to the Post. "In our view, the media
handled this pretty irresponsibly," he stated. "Perhaps slow news
periods bring out a tabloid mentality, but all airlines deny boarding to
passengers every day, without it becoming headlines."
He says the incident was not related to profiling "in any sense," but a
matter of the agent not following correct procedures.