Shortly before 5:00 p.m. on Monday, Texas lawyer Bobby Abtahi tweeted from La Guardia Airport that he had been barred from boarding Virgin America Flight 885 to Dallas because the crew did not feel "comfortable" having him on board. Abtahi asked for further explanation, and a gate agent said that the lawyer had allegedly cut off a crew member in a revolving door when he arrived at the airport.
"Was in revolving door going in & lady got in right behind me in same stall. Both fumbled to get in & didn't know she was crew," Abtahi tweeted to reporters later that evening.
And then, "Didn't think anything of it until gate agent told me I cut someone off. Offered to apologize. Was told I won't be getting on."
Abtahi is Iranian-American. Asked if he believed that race played a role in his being barred from the flight, he said that he hoped not, but had not ruled out the possibility.
"I really truly hope not but the thought did cross my mind," he wrote via text message to the Dallas Morning News. "I haven't shaved in five days and my hair is a mess. I've been on a beach." Abtahi was en route home from Bermuda, where he and his wife had just celebrated their first wedding anniversary.
Described by the NY Times as a "prominent" lawyer in his home state, Abtahi is also the vice chairman of the Dallas Plan Commission, which makes city planning and zoning recommendations to the City Council. Abtahi flies twice a week, and has both PreCheck and Global Entry. "I’m not acting crazy," he told the paper, recalling his interaction with the gate agent. "I haven’t been drinking. I’m just standing."
Around 7:45 p.m. on Monday, Abtahi tweeted that he had received a formal apology from the airline. Reached by e-mail, Virgin spokesman Dave Arnold described the incident as a "misunderstanding."
"We have apologized to Mr. Abtahi for his experience," Arnold stated. "As an airline that prides itself on our award-winning guest service, we take issues like this very seriously. We are sorry Mr. Abtahi had this experience, as it was not representative of the guest service for which we are known."
I got a nice sincere apology from @VirginAmerica. You are now permitted to calm down Internet.
— Bobby Abtahi (@BobbyAbtahi) December 1, 2015
Virgin Airlines initially allowed Abtahi to cancel the flight without a fee, and he managed to book an American Airlines flight leaving around the same time. Following considerable backlash on Twitter, Virgin offered Abtahi two free flights in the future. Abtahi declined the free tickets, and instead asked Virgin to give them to the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, which provides support to refugees in Dallas.
Current policy gives airlines significant leeway in determining if a passenger should be barred from his or her flight.