Victory. On Wednesday morning, after a two-day standoff in Mexico City, Sikh American actor, designer and activist Waris Ahluwalia boarded an Aeromexico flight back home to the United States.
Sikh Actor Is Allowed to Fly Home to U.S. Wearing His Turban
The airline initially barred Ahluwalia from flying because he refused to remove his turban, an article of his Sikh faith. But after Waris took a stand, calling for better sensitivity and training regarding passengers with religious headwear -- attracting a ton of media attention in the process -- Aeromexico relented.
After spending two extra days grounded in Mexico City, Ahulwalia was allowed to board a new Aeroméxico flight without removing his turban for a security check. In addition to issuing an apology to Ahluwalia, the airline agreed to initiate staff training about how to deal with passengers wearing religious head coverings.
On Monday, Ahluwalia was prohibited from boarding the 7:15 AM Aeroméxico flight from Mexico City to New York City. After being flagged for a secondary security check, he was held back until all other passengers had boarded while security personnel searched his bag, swabbed him and patted him down.
When they asked Ahluwalia to take off his turban, he refused.
"I responded matter-of-factly that I won't be taking off my turban," Ahluwalia told the New York Times. "It is a symbol of my faith. It is something that I wear whenever I am in public."
An airline employee told Ahluwalia that he would not be getting on his flight, or any other Aeroméxico flight, until he met their security demands. So he missed his flight and immediately contacted the Sikh Coalition, which quickly devised a campaign to address the violation of Ahluwalia's civil rights.
In addition to sharing his story with over 600 media outlets, the Sikh Coalition contacted Aeromexico on Mr. Ahluwalia's behalf, submitted a detailed complaint letter to their legal counsel and engaged in extensive negotiations over the past two days. They requested a public apology, Sikh awareness training for airline employees, and training on protocols for screening passengers with religious headwear.
Mr. Ahluwalia refused to make other arrangements on another airline and decided instead to remain in Mexico City until the Aeroméxico responded to his demands. This was about more than just a personal inconvenience. The incident became an opportunity to highlight both his mistreatment and that of Sikh Americans and other minority groups in the current climate of fear.
Late Tuesday night, the Sikh Coalition received confirmation that Aeroméxico had accepted their demands.
"In addition to publicly apologizing for Mr. Ahluwalia's mistreatment, Aeroméxico has issued a directive to its staff regarding the religious significance of the Sikh turban and plans to make a formal request to the TSA and the Mexican government to implement religious and diversity sensitivity training regarding screening of passengers with religious headwear into airport security training curriculum," said Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition.
"We apologize to Mr. Waris Ahluwalia for the unfortunate experience he had with one of our security guards during the boarding process," Aeroméxico said in a statement. "This incident inspires us to make sure that we strengthen the customer service protocols of our safety personnel in respectful accordance with the cultural and religious values of our customers."
As for Waris' flight home, everything apparently went smoothly. He did not have to remove his turban for secondary screening, made it through security, and flew back to New York City without incident. And everybody's hopefully a little bit wiser.
Waris apparently even made friends with two Aeroméxico pilots.
The Sikh Coalition says it also plans to contact the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to demand clearer and consistent guidelines for foreign airlines when screening passengers with religious headwear. Sikhs are not required to remove their turbans during domestic travel unless the article of faith triggers an alarm, and only then as an option of last resort and in private. Foreign airlines that fly into the U.S. -- and must comply with TSA procedures -- should be subject to the same rules.
More here: #StandWithWaris Campaign Leads to Airline Training & Global Education