Sikh man barred from Mexico flight sees 'small victory'
Feb. 10, 2016
MEXICO CITY (AP) — An Indian-American actor and designer who was turned away from an airline flight after refusing to remove his Sikh turban during a security check said he's "thrilled" that Aeromexico is vowing to overhaul its screening protocols.
In an interview Tuesday night at a Mexico City hotel where he ended up extending his stay by two nights, Waris Ahluwalia also expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support on social media that he believes helped pressure airline executives to change and apologize.
Ahluwalia showed an excerpt from an email that he said came from Aeromexico. The text said the airline had "issued a directive to its staff regarding the religious significance of the Sikh turban" and planned to ask that the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and the Mexican government implement sensitivity training on religious headwear for airport agents.
"That's all I wanted, and here it is in a few lines — it's right there in black and white," he said. "I'm getting goosebumps right now that if this makes a difference for anyone traveling into the country or leaving the country, then it was all worth it."
He said the agreement had been worked out by lawyers for Aeromexico and the Sikh Coalition in New York and the deal had not yet been made public.
Aeromexico said earlier in the day that because of the incident it intended to revise security protocols to respect cultural and religious values of its customers.
The turban carries deep religious significance for Sikh men. Many members of the Sikh community have objected to the practice of frisking turbans, calling it unnecessary in a world with machines for body scanning and metal detection.
Ahluwalia, who had traveled to Mexico for an art fair, left his hotel around 4:30 a.m. Monday planning to catch a morning flight to New York. When he checked in he noticed the boarding pass had an "SSSS" notation on it, which he said he has encountered "more than a dozen times" before at airports and apparently flags passengers for secondary screening.
After passing through the security checkpoint, he said, he was pulled aside at the gate and checked with a wand, a pat-down, and swabs on his belt and bag.
"Then they asked me matter-of-factly, 'Can you take off your turban?'" Ahluwalia said. "At that point I said the thing that I always say when I've been asked that before. I said, 'I will not be taking my turban off here.'"
Ahluwalia said he was then told he would not be boarding any Aeromexico plane and should arrange to fly with another carrier.
He turned to Instagram to let his followers know what had happened. Word spread rapidly on social media, and within about an hour airline executives tracked him down at the gate and offered him a boarding pass for the next flight to New York.
He declined, deciding to speak up as an actor and prominent member of the Sikh community to demand change.
"That was the moment I realized that if I didn't say anything, if I didn't do anything, if I didn't step out of my comfort zone, that this could happen again to someone" else, Ahluwalia said. "And I couldn't in good conscience get on that plane knowing that someone else would have to experience this."
He returned to the hotel.
That night, Aeromexico issued a statement saying it was "committed to transporting all its passengers without regard to their religion, social status or gender ... but the airline is obliged to comply with the federal rules determined by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for inspecting selected passengers travelling to the United States."
However, U.S. guidelines put into effect in 2010 no longer require air passengers to remove turbans if doing so makes them uncomfortable.
"TSA officers are trained to treat all passengers with dignity and respect, and receive periodic training regarding cultural and religious sensitivities," the agency said in a statement Wednesday. "When additional screening is needed that requires the removal of religious apparel, our officers offer private screening and request the passenger remove the item."
On Tuesday, the airline issued a more explicit apology to Ahluwalia "for the unfortunate experience he had with one of our security guards during the boarding process prior to his flight."
Ahluwalia said he isn't angry with Aeromexico or the agents who turned him away.
"The only way to combat that is with love, is with tolerance, is with understanding and is with education," he said.
He noted he was booked to return home Wednesday on the same Aeromexico flight he was blocked from.
"The reality of the situation is that it could have happened anywhere — and it has happened everywhere," Ahluwalia said. "It just so happened it went this far here."
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson contributed to this report.
Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi