JetBlue, TSA Workers Pay $240,000 to Settle T-Shirt Lawsuit

Last Updated Jan 6, 2009 1:31 PM EST

JetBlue Airways and two U.S. Transportation Security Administration officials paid $240,000 to settle a lawsuit that charged the two groups barred a man from a flight until he covered his T-shirt with an Arabic phrase.

The money was paid Friday to Raed Jarrar, a 30-year-old Iraqi-born U.S. resident who lives in Washington, D.C. and is married to an American citizen. Jarrar alleged that he was prevented from boarding an August 2006 flight to Oakland, Calif. because he was wearing a T-shirt that said, "We Will Not Be Silent" in both English and Arabic. He said he wasn't allowed to board until he covered the shirt and was seated at the rear of the plane. "I proved my point. And now I think it's pretty clear what they did to me was very wrong and should not be repeated with anyone," Jarrar told the Washington Post. Jarrar was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Representatives for JetBlue and the two TSA employees named in the suit, denied any wrongdoing and said they settled because of legal costs. "JetBlue continues to deny, outright, every critical aspect of Mr. Jarrar's version of events," airline spokeswoman Alison Croyle said in an e-mailed statement.
Discrimination suits are rare because pilots have so much latitude in choosing who does or doesn't board the plane, civil rights attorneys said, and it's difficult to prove discrimination if customers are offered other flights.

The settlement came as AirTran Airways publicly apologized to nine Muslim American passengers removed from a New Year's Day flight out of Reagan Washington National Airport, and who threatened a lawsuit. The family was removed after a couple of family members began talking about the safest place to sit on the plane which allegedly disturbed other passengers.

The two cases, at least to me, show that there are limits to pilots' latitude, especially when it appears to be based on discrimination or prejudice. Perhaps a pilot decides it best to have a family removed, or a T-shirt allegedly covered, to keep the majority of his or her passengers calm. But when does that stop becoming a safety concern and becomes more about prejudice and xenophobia? It's the pilot's and crew's duty to be sensitive to different cultures, even if it means discounting other passengers' outdated beliefs. Perhaps now, with allegations of discrimination showing how costly that behavior can be for airlines, that may happen.