26-year-old student Omar Ali missed his flight to the U.S last week after being falsely accused of being a threat by American Airlines personnel. 

Ali also faced discrimination that mocked his autism.

A trip derailed

On the morning of April 1, Queen Mary University student Omar Ali was at London Heathrow Airport ahead of his flight to Texas in the evening. Unknown to him at the time, his trip wouldn’t even go ahead. 

From arriving at the American Airlines check-in in the morning, Omar’s troubles began. He had already filled in a pre-flight form to specify his Asperger’s Syndrome, so the staff should have been aware, yet they treated him without any of the extra consideration and time he needed. 

According to Omar when speaking to MyLondon, American Airlines staff took his passport and went through it. He was then confronted with accusatory questions about how he’d never been to the U.S before and hadn’t ever been to the U.S before. 

Omar then spoke about how he was treated by the staff:

They also spoke to me like I was a child, like a 2-year-old, and completely ignored everything I was saying to them. They were telling me I needed a parent and were saying things like ‘oh, we’ll just wait for daddy and he’ll explain it to you.’ They knew my age from my passport, and I actually look older than 26, so there was no way for them to mistake me for a child.

Omar missed his flight because of the treatment he’d faced from American Airlines. By the time he was given his passport back, he’d missed his flight. He was given a new flight, which paled in comparison to his initial flight where he’d paid £170 extra, as it was the cheapest basic economy seat. 

Welcome to Heathrow Airport
Heathrow is one of six international airports serving London. | © AP

Matters had gotten from bad to worse for Omar. He was flagged as a ‘red alert’ at security, and Heathrow staff wouldn’t inform him as to why he’d been flagged and what the alert meant. According to Omar, they’d just “dumped” him as they “spoke on their walkie-talkies”. 

Later, after complaining to American Airlines, Omar was finally informed of the reason behind his ‘red alert’, which was confusing in itself:

American Airlines tried to create the impression that I was being suspicious, their reason being that I was drinking from my water bottle and that I wasn’t allowed to bring in big containers. I literally just had my water bottle that I drank from and put in the bin, and they raised that as suspicious. 

After complaining to American Airlines and Heathrow Airport, Omar was told he would not receive any kind of refund or compensation. A disheartening result after the entire humiliating ordeal left Omar £2,500 out of pocket when factoring in his missed flight, hotel booking in Texas, and a sporting event in Texas he had missed. 

A spokesperson for Heathrow Airport said:

The US Transportation Security Administration requires all airlines travelling to the US to conduct secondary security screening checks on a proportion of their passengers. The criteria for these checks are set by the TSA.

While Heathrow is not involved in this stage of the screening process, there are clear procedures in place for the selection of passengers for these additional checks [ … ] This is all designed to ensure that the safety of civil aviation is maintained, and of course, is supplementary to the multi-layered security screening conducted by the airport.

Little consolidation for Omar, however, who suffered discriminatory and offensive treatment while simply attempting to board a plane and travel abroad as an autistic and Muslim man. These factors shouldn’t have had an impact on his experience, yet it is clear that they had. The aviation industry should work to obliterate these discriminatory practices in airports to ensure flying is a positive and welcoming experience for all. 

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