Two Muslim scholars headed to a conference on American fears of Islam were pulled from a morning flight on Friday, and were later told that the pilot had refused to fly with them aboard.
Masudur Rahman, a professor of Arabic at the University of Memphis, and Mohamed Zaghloul, Imam at the Islamic Association of Greater Memphis, were asked to deplane Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight 5452 from Memphis to Charlotte. They were subjected to additional security checks after the plane had pushed back from the gate, Rahman told Reuters by telephone.
After additional screening, the two men were cleared by Delta representatives to re-board the plane, but were then told the pilot would not take them, Rahman said.
Rahman said both men had been cleared for check-in and boarding by airline and Transportation Security Administration officials during normal pre-flight procedures.
According to a TSA spokesman, the decision to remove the two passengers was made by the airline.
Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a regional partner operating as a Delta Connection, apologized for any inconvenience caused, but offered no further explanation.
The flight "returned to the gate to allow for additional screening of a passenger and the passenger's companion. We take security and safety very seriously, and the event is currently under investigation," an airline statement said.
The two men were headed to a North American Imams conference where they were scheduled to lead prayers. This year's conference is discussing Islamophobia or fears of Islam and discrimination against American Muslims.
Since the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan last week, U.S. government officials have warned that al Qaeda may attempt retaliatory attacks.
Rahman said Delta officials told them it was not passengers who were uncomfortable with the men's presence, but the pilot.
Given the men had been cleared by security, the pilot may not understand Muslim culture, the Islam religion or how they typically dress with their body fully covered, said Rahman.
"People are losing freedom," he said of the incident, which he said happens to other Muslim men and women traveling together.
Rahman and Zaghloul arrived nine hours late to the conference, he said.