Two years after the 9/11 attacks spread terror across the United States, a group of five Egyptian businessmen and four women boarded an Alaska Airlines flight in Vancouver, Canada, and took their seats in first class.
They were headed to Las Vegas to attend an energy industry convention, and the events that unfolded after the plane's departure would form the basis for a federal lawsuit. On Tuesday, nearly 10 years after the flight, a Las Vegas jury began hearing the details of that case.
Sabrina Kobert, the only non-Egyptian plaintiff in the case, was the first to testify. She said one flight attendant seemed afraid of the group from the beginning.
"We could sense that she wasn't comfortable with a big group of Arabs in the first class," Kobert testified. "You could tell."
Kobert, a citizen of both Brazil and Germany, was traveling on Sept. 29, 2003, with her then-fiance, Amre Ginena, a citizen of both Canada and Egypt who also is a plaintiff in the case. The couple, who live in Italy, were married in 2009.
The nine plaintiffs are seeking money damages from Alaska Airlines Inc. for defamation of character and a several-hour delay of international travel.
The defendant contends that during the flight, some of the plaintiffs interfered with the flight crew by failing to follow instructions and engaging the flight attendants in a shouting match.
Kobert, now 33 and six months' pregnant with her second son, said one flight attendant seemed angry with the group and was the only one shouting. She said that woman went to speak to the captain, who then diverted the flight to the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
The witness said she felt fear as the plane quickly descended.
"We didn't know what was going to happen," she testified.
Kobert began to cry as she recalled looking out the window and seeing police officers waiting for the plane at the airport.
"I thought they were going to send my husband to Guantanamo," she said with a nervous laugh.
The plaintiffs contend that the captain ejected all nine passengers from the plane in Reno and asked police to arrest them, although they had done nothing wrong.
They also contend that six of those passengers had no interaction with the flight attendant at all and that the three who did speak with the flight attendant did not create a disturbance. Interfering with a flight crew is a federal felony.
Kobert said she thought Ginena asked a flight attendant at one point whether it was common to allow passengers from the economy section to use the restroom in the first-class section. She also remembered a flight attendant screaming at her father-in-law to sit down. The witness said he complied.
No one was arrested, and all nine passengers caught another flight to Las Vegas on another airline.
However, Alaska Airlines reported the incident to federal officials, who later interviewed the passengers at their hotel in Las Vegas.
"This case is not about discrimination. It's not about terrorism. It's not about where the plaintiffs are from or what language they speak or how much money they have," said San Diego attorney William O'Connor Jr., who represents Alaska Airlines. "This case is about aviation safety and security."
During his opening statement, O'Connor told jurors that "everything had changed" by September 2003.
"And it was well-known that everybody had to follow the rules," he said. "On every airline, not just Alaska Airlines."
Alaska Airlines contends the actions of its flight crew were reasonable and that any communications about the plaintiffs were not defamatory.
Plaintiffs who were at the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse for the start of the trial were Kobert, Ginena, Nazmi M. Nazmi of Toronto and Azza Eid, who lives in Egypt.
Kobert's testimony is scheduled to resume this morning in U.S. District Judge Miranda Du's courtroom. The trial is expected to last more than three weeks.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at email@example.com or 702-384-8710.