An Arab-American vlogger known for his YouTube pranks claimed he was kicked off a Delta Air Lines plane Wednesday morning because other passengers felt uncomfortable that he spoke to his mother on the phone in Arabic.
Adam Saleh, a 23-year-old internet personality, tweeted a video showing him and a friend, Slim Albaher, about to be removed from the plane.
“Guys, we spoke a different language on the plane and now we’re getting kicked out,” a visibly upset Saleh said to the camera. “This is 2016. 2016. Look, Delta Air Lines are kicking us out because we spoke a different language. You guys are racist. I cannot believe my eyes.”
As his video and subsequent tweets went viral, Saleh’s account was questioned – even as his agent insisted to The Washington Post that the incident was not a prank.
In the video, as Saleh panned the camera around the plane cabin, a few passengers waved. Several could be heard shouting: “Bye!”
At least one passenger could be seen coming to Saleh’s defense, telling flight attendants that he thought what was happening was “insane.”
“I am upset that that’s happening, really upset,” the passenger said. “Is there freedom of speech? They can speak in whatever language they want to on the plane.”
Delta officials confirmed that two people were removed from the flight from London Heathrow International Airport to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“Two customers were removed from this flight and later rebooked after a disturbance in the cabin resulted in more than 20 customers expressing their discomfort,” Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said in an email to The Post early Wednesday.
“We’re conducting a full review to understand what transpired,” Durrant said. “We are taking allegations of discrimination very seriously; our culture requires treating others with respect.”
Durrant did not identify the passengers who were removed from the plane.
Several hours later, the airline released a more detailed statement saying it was “gathering all of the facts before jumping to any conclusion.”
“Plans are in place to immediately speak with our crew and other passengers when the flight lands this afternoon,” the statement read. “We will provide an update once we have more information.”
Flight-tracking records showed the plane departed Heathrow at 11:03 a.m. local time, about an hour after its scheduled departure. It was scheduled to land at JFK around 2:45 p.m.
Saleh’s tweets were shared tens of thousands of times. Within a few hours, the original video depicting him on the plane had been retweeted more than 300,000 times and #BoycottDelta had become the top trending topic worldwide on Twitter.
On Wednesday, skeptics noted Saleh’s history and cast doubt on his account of getting kicked off a Delta flight.
Saleh started making YouTube videos as a teenager and has since achieved some level of fame as a YouTube star and vlogger. He is known for playing pranks on people, and often those recorded pranks center on the different treatment of Muslims in everyday life.
Some took place on airplanes, such as one Saleh posted in February titled “COUNTING DOWN IN ARABIC ON A PLANE EXPERIMENT!!”
Saleh and his friend later admitted at least one of their most popular videos, showing alleged discrimination by a New York City police officer, was staged.
“It wasn’t (real), it was a dramatization (of) a re-enactment of what happened to us whilst filming in our traditional clothing,” Saleh wrote in a subsequent video apology. “We just wanted to bring awareness to the world that we weren’t going to be treated unjustly.”
Just last week, an Australian news site used airport security footage to debunk one of Saleh’s most recent video claims – that he stowed away in a suitcase to fly from Melbourne to Sydney.
Saleh seemed aware of his reputation in a live-streamed video he took at the gate after he deplaned.
“And on my mother’s life. … I’ll say it for the eighth time, this is not even over-exaggeration, this is literally exactly what happened,” Saleh said into the camera. “I cannot believe my eyes. I cannot believe what the heck just happened.”
His agent, Naz Rahman, said in a phone call from London that what happened on the plane was not staged.
“This isn’t a prank; this is not a prank,” Rahman told The Post. “We wouldn’t go to this extent to do a prank. I know he’s a prankster, but you can see it clearly on video what’s happened there.”
A call to Saleh went straight to voice mail, and he did not immediately respond to a text message Wednesday.
But the New York Times said that it reached Saleh at Heathrow and that he insisted he wasn’t pulling a stunt.
“The only thing I can say is, I would never film a phone video,” he told the Times. “That’s when it’s really serious, and I must film.”
The Times noted that Saleh’s video camera “was in his luggage.”
Rahman said Saleh had stopped over in London to spend a day there on the way back to New York after wrapping up an international trip that started Nov. 14.
On Wednesday morning, Rahman said, he dropped Saleh off at the airport and was later told he had gotten onto the plane fine.
“He always calls his parents every time he flies, just gets their blessing before he goes,” Rahman said. “Somebody shouted, ‘We don’t understand what you’re saying. You’re making us feel uncomfortable.’ It kind of erupted from there.”
Rahman said Saleh called him immediately after he was made to leave the plane.
A subsequent tweet from Saleh – simply titled “Please help us get back to New York” – linked to a Periscope video that live-streamed their phone conversation, Rahman said.
“I swear on my mother’s life they just kicked us out,” Saleh is seen telling Rahman. “This was their reason. They were like, ‘Oh, um, you spoke loud.’ And I’m like, what the hell? That’s your reason? That’s your excuse? Saying that we spoke loud? Then give us a warning if we spoke loud. We’ll say sorry, that’s it.”
Saleh told his agent that, despite protests from some other passengers on their side, they were made to deplane.
“Everyone in there knew that what me and Slim did was just speak a different language,” Saleh said. “All the racist people in there, they were like, we feel uncomfortable. But since there were like 20 of those racist people, the captain came and he kicked us out.”
On Twitter, Saleh said he had spoken to police at Heathrow airport and been made to go through security screening once more after the incident. A few hours after his initial video post, Saleh tweeted that he had been rebooked on another flight to New York City – on a different airline.
When reached by phone, a Heathrow airport spokeswoman referred all questions to Delta and did not provide further details.
“It’s not an airport issue,” she said. “It’s an airline issue.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has reported a growing number of incidents in which a Muslim person is removed from a flight because he or she posed an imaginary threat, dubbing the phenomenon “flying while Muslim.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced last month that it would begin highlighting data on the number of discrimination complaints the agency receives, noting that such complaints against airlines had risen 37 percent in the first nine months of 2016 from the same period last year.
Saleh’s purported encounter Wednesday is the latest in a string of tense, high-profile incidents that have taken place on Delta Air Lines flights in recent months.
Last week, video emerged showing an officer dragging a woman from a Delta flight from Detroit after she refused to follow boarding rules, according to airline and airport officials.
In November, not long after the presidential election, a Delta passenger recorded a man standing in the aisle of the plane, shouting about politics. “We got some Hillary b—- here?” he screamed. “Come on, baby! Trump! That’s what I’m talking about. Hey, baby! Donald Trump! He’s your president, every g—- one of (you). If you don’t like it, too bad.”
The man was allowed to remain on the Nov. 22 flight from Atlanta to Allentown, Pennsylvania. But Delta later apologized for the disruption, saying that the man shouldn’t have been able to stay in the plane. The airline told employees that the man “will never again be allowed on a Delta plane.”
In October, Tamika Cross, a black physician, tried to come to the aid of a passenger who had fallen ill on their Delta flight – but was dismissed by a flight attendant who doubted that she was a medical professional, Cross said. Her experience triggered a change in Delta policy.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Amy B Wang