Nine Muslims, including three children, were ordered off a domestic US flight after two other passengers heard them making what they thought were suspicious remarks about security, media said on Friday.
The group, eight of whom are US citizens, was in Washington Thursday afternoon on an AirTran flight bound for Orlando, Florida where they were to attend a religious retreat, and were eventually cleared for travel by the FBI, according to the Washington Post.
The airline and FBI characterized the incident as a misunderstanding, but AirTran reportedly refused to rebook the passengers, who paid for seats on another carrier.
Kashif Irfan, 34, said his younger brother Atif and his brother's wife "were remarking about safety" when they were overheard.
"My brother and his wife were discussing some aspect of airport security," he told the Post. "The only thing my brother said was, 'Wow, the jets are right next to my window."
Irfan, who was also traveling with his wife, a sister-in-law, a friend and Irfan's three sons ages seven, four, and two, said action was taken against his party because of the way they looked.
All were traditionally Muslim in appearance, with the men sporting beards and the women in headscarves.
An airline spokesman, Tad Hutcheson, defended AirTran's handling of the situation.
"At the end of the day, people got on and made comments they shouldn't have made on the airplane," he was quoted as saying.
"Other people heard them, misconstrued them. It just so happened these people were of Muslim faith and appearance," Hutcheson added. "It escalated, it got out of hand and everyone took precautions."
The pilot postponed the flight, and federal officials ordered all 104 passengers off the plane to rescreen them and their luggage before allowing the flight to go to Orlando, two hours late and without the nine passengers.
Ellen Howe, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, said the pilot acted appropriately.
"It was an ordeal," said Abdur Razack Aziz, one of the detained. "Nothing came out of it. It was paranoid people. It was very sad."