YouTube Pranksters Kicked Off Delta Flight, Claim Racism
22 Dec, 2016
Two Muslim American YouTube stars who were returning home to New York after a world tour said they were removed from a Delta Air Lines flight in London on Wednesday after other passengers expressed discomfort with their presence on the plane.
Adam Saleh, 23, a filmmaker from Manhattan, and his friend Slim Albaher, 22, from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, said they had been asked by the captain to leave their flight at Heathrow Airport after Mr. Saleh spoke in Arabic to his mother by phone, and he and Mr. Albaher followed up by speaking to each other in Arabic, causing alarm among British passengers on the flight.
The news was met on social media with anger at the airline industry, but also skepticism, though passengers who were on the plane when it landed in New York corroborated the men’s story. Mr. Saleh, who has more than two million subscribers on YouTube, has a history of perpetuating video hoaxes and pranks, some of them aimed at exposing stereotypes about Muslims. In his latest YouTube video, posted this month, he pretended to smuggle himself onto a plane in a suitcase.
In a phone interview Wednesday from Heathrow before he and Mr. Albaher boarded a later flight, Mr. Saleh said this was not a stunt. “The only thing I can say is, I would never film a phone video,” he said. “That’s when it’s really serious, and I must film.” His video camera was in his luggage.
Delta said in a statement on Wednesday evening that, based on information collected so far, the two customers removed from the flight “sought to disrupt the cabin with provocative behavior, including shouting.”
“What is paramount to Delta is the safety and comfort of our passengers and employees,” the airline said. “It is clear these individuals sought to violate that priority.”
Earlier in the day, Delta said that it was taking allegations of discrimination “very seriously.”
Camilla Goodman, a spokeswoman for London’s Metropolitan Police, confirmed that two passengers had been removed from the flight and that they “didn’t do anything lawfully wrong.” They were not arrested, she said. Mr. Saleh and Mr. Albaher later boarded a Virgin flight to New York.
In Periscope videos and the phone interview, Mr. Saleh and Mr. Albaher gave their version of events.
Mr. Saleh said he had just spoken to his mother on the phone, in Arabic, to tell her when his flight would land. After the call, he and Mr. Albaher continued to speak briefly in Arabic until they were interrupted by a woman in front of them, who asked them to speak English because they were making her uncomfortable.
They did not respond aggressively, Mr. Saleh said, but told her that they were speaking Arabic and asked whether she had ever heard another language. Then, Mr. Saleh said, a man with a British accent who appeared to be traveling with the woman swore at them and said they should be “chucked” off the plane.
“At this point, me and Slim looked at each other,” Mr. Saleh said in the interview. “We didn’t know what to do. We felt like we were terrorists.”
The situation escalated, Mr. Saleh said, and other passengers joined in asking that Mr. Saleh and Mr. Albaher be kicked off the plane. Some of them mentioned Monday’s terrorist attack in Berlin, he said.
After the disturbance continued for what Mr. Saleh said was about seven minutes, the captain was summoned, and he asked that the two men leave the plane with their baggage.
At that point, Mr. Saleh started filming with his phone. He later shared the video, and others from the airport, on Twitter, where he has more than 250,000 followers.
Chris Ashford, 47, who was aboard the plane after a layover in London, said he believed that the woman had “overreacted.”
“She heard somebody speaking in Arabic and assumed the worst,” he said.
He added that while he thought Delta had acted in the interest of some of its passengers, “I do think it was heavy-handed, kicking the guy off the plane and then removing his bags.”
The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, 51, was also on the plane. Although she said she could not judge the airline’s actions because she had only witnessed some of the disruption, Ms. Thompson did say that both parties should have been removed.
“If you’re going to investigate, how are you going to investigate one side of an altercation?” she asked.
In the video, Mr. Saleh is escorted from the plane as he points out passengers who were heckling him, yelling goodbye and waving at the camera.
“You guys are racist,” Mr. Saleh shouts in the video as he describes the confrontation. “Six white people against us bearded men.”
With Mr. Saleh’s large following, the story quickly took off, and many people were immediately critical of Delta.
Reports of Muslims’ being asked to leave planes have risen in recent months, according to advocacy groups. Zainab Chaudry, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the United States’ largest Muslim civil rights group, said in a phone interview on Wednesday, “More and more reports have been made of Muslims or Arabs, or people who were perceived to be Muslim or Arabs, who were removed from planes by airline personnel.”
“There isn’t one particular airline I can point to and say, ‘We’ve been hearing more reports on this airline than others,’” she said. “Delta has not been one of the more common offenders.”
In April, a college student was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight in California when he was heard speaking Arabic, a week after a Muslim woman was asked to leave another Southwest flight when she sought to switch seats. In May, an Italian professor was removed from an American Airlines flight because another passenger was alarmed by his handwritten notes, which were in fact math equations.
Mr. Saleh and Mr. Albaher, who are best friends and frequently work together, had recently traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Sydney, Australia, to perform their stage show, which mixes comedy with inspirational speaking. Their fans are largely young, English-speaking Muslims from around the world, Mr. Albaher said, though he added, “A bunch of other people watch us too.”
Mr. Saleh was born and raised in New York City. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he recalled, he was afraid to tell people he was Muslim, but he later embraced his culture and religion. “I wanted to show people we can have fun,” he said. “We can be normal just like everyone else.”