Sikh American actor, model, and jewelry designer Waris Ahluwalia says he was barred from an Aero Mexico flight today because he refused to remove his turban, sparking outrage in the Sikh community and raising concerns about an uptick in airport profiling.
According to Ahluwalia, who has played prominent roles in Hollywood films such as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, the incident began when he entered the Mexico City airport Monday morning and was flagged for advanced screening. Speaking to ThinkProgress from the Mexico City airport, he said he had encountered such screening before and was “fine” with it, but that he was held back when everyone else began boarding the plane bound to New York City.
“I was about to board, and they asked me to remove my turban,” Ahluwalia said, referring to the religious headgear typically worn by Sikh men. “That’s not something I’m willing to do in front of everyone. It’s like asking someone to remove their underwear in public.”
“I said that’s not going to happen,” he said. “Then another gentlemen came by and said that I would not be getting on any Aero Mexico flight.”
Ahluwalia also posted an image to Instagram showing his plane ticket shortly after the incident, highlighting that “SSSS” was circled — a code for “secondary screening.”
The actor noted that the situation would have likely gone differently in the United States, where security officials screen Sikhs in private rooms and pat down turbans instead of asking them to remove religious headgear in public. And Ahluwalia, who also achieved fame in 2014 when he appeared in an advertisement for the GAP wearing his turban, said that the situation likely puts Aero Mexico in an awkward position.
“I was flying as a guest of Aero Mexico,” he said, explaining that the trip was intended for him to visit a Mexican arts fair, where he could meet artists and experience Mexican culture.
Despite their initial warnings, Aero Mexcio is reportedly now trying to book Ahluwalia on another flight. But the actor expressed unease with boarding the plane, preferring the airline first offer a public apology and promise to train their staff about Sikhism and religious headgear in general.
“It’s okay to make a mistake — we’re human,” he said. “But it’s about what you do after that. It’s about how you deal with that. It is a larger conversation. It’s just a chance to make the world a better place.”
The incident is already sparking outcry from other Sikhs on social media, largely because instances of airport profiling are becoming increasingly common for Sikhs, Muslims, and Arab Americans who fly in and out of the United States. As an unprecedented wave of Islamophobia — whose victims often include non-Muslims — continues to sweep the United States, religious headgear and race is triggering reactions from airlines and fellow passengers. Four Muslim and Sikh men are currently suing American Airlines for allegedly removing them from a flight without cause in December, and in the same month, an influential Sikh commentator for MSNBC was asked to show passengers on a plane her breast pump to prove she wasn’t a terrorist.
Aero Mexico did not immediately respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.
On Wednesday — nearly two days after Ahluwalia was barred from the Aero Mexico flight — the airline consented to his demands, agreeing offer a public apology as well as train their staff on Sikhism and religious headgear in general.
"We apologize to Mr. Waris Ahluwalia for the unfortunate experience he had with one of our security guards during the boarding process prior to his flight to New York at the Mexico City International Airport," read the statement from Aero Mexico, according to the Associated Press. "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."
The actor has said he is happy with the apology, and has now returned to New York.