A Frontier Airlines flight from Miami to La Guardia Airport in New York was canceled Sunday night after a large group of passengers, including several adults, refused to wear masks, the airline said.
By Monday morning, the airline was facing accusations of anti-Semitism for its treatment of the passengers, who are Hasidic Jews, as well as demands for an investigation from the Anti-Defamation League of New York and other groups. Frontier steadfastly held to its position that the passengers had refused to comply with federal rules requiring them to wear masks.
Several cellphone videos that have surfaced do not show the confrontation that took place between the passengers and the Frontier crew members, only the aftermath. The video footage from inside the aircraft appeared to show members of the group wearing masks. Some passengers said that the episode escalated because just one member of the group, a 15-month-old child, was not wearing one.
Videos of the passengers exiting the plane amid chaos, captured by other people on the flight, were posted on Twitter by the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council. In one video, a passenger says, “This is an anti-Semitic act.”
Another video showed a couple holding a maskless baby in a car seat, as children could be heard crying and a woman explained that the young children in their group, sitting in the back of the plane, had taken off their masks to eat.
In a third video, a passenger says “This is Nazi Germany” as the couple with the young child makes their way up the plane’s aisle toward the exit.
A Frontier Airlines spokesperson said in a statement that “a large group of passengers repeatedly refused to comply with the U.S. government’s federal mask mandate.”
“Multiple people, including several adults, were asked repeatedly to wear their masks and refused to do so,” said Jennifer de la Cruz, the spokesperson. “Based on the continued refusal to comply with the federal mask mandate, refusal to disembark the aircraft and aggression towards the flight crew, local law enforcement was engaged. The flight was ultimately canceled.”
But members of the group said that they were wearing masks.
“We’re law-abiding citizens, law-abiding people,” said Martin Joseph, who was traveling with 21 members of his family, including his children and grandchildren. “We have small children. We understand that the mask has to be worn, and everybody has to wear a mask and that’s the law. We comply 1,000,000%.”
Joseph said his daughter and her husband were sitting in the back row with their 15-month-old child and two other couples and their children. All are Hasidic Jews, Joseph said, though he added that one of the couples was not related to him.
He said a flight attendant asked his daughter to put a mask on her baby. She argued that her son did not need to wear a mask because of his age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires masks only for airline passengers who are at least 2 years old.
“Then they announced that all three couples in the back of the plane have to leave the plane before they take off,” Joseph said. “The babies were crying, people were crying, the mothers were crying.”
Another passenger on the plane, Temima Stark, said she was sitting with her husband and child when the commotion began. She said she saw airline employees approach the passengers in the back. All of them appeared to be wearing masks, she said, except the baby, who was eating.
As the passengers were getting off the plane, Stark, who was not traveling with the group, said she saw airline employees high-fiving one another. Several other passengers who were interviewed on video repeated the claim. Frontier Airlines did not directly comment on the allegation.
“The whole plane was just going crazy,” she said.
A few minutes after they exited, Stark said, the remaining passengers were ordered off the plane.
On Monday, the Anti-Defamation League of New York called for a “full and transparent investigation” on Twitter, citing “apparent #antisemitic comments made by crew or others.”
Asked about the allegations of anti-Semitism, de la Cruz, the Frontier spokesperson, said the airline reviews “every situation where a passenger has to be removed from a flight.”
“Like many other airlines,” she said, “Frontier has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to masks on our flights. This is made clear at the time of purchase, prior to and during the check-in process, at the gate and on board the aircraft.”
Mask-wearing and other public-health measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus became a flashpoint in the New York area over the summer as COVID-19 began spreading rapidly through sections of Brooklyn and Queens. City health officials said at the time that they were especially concerned about a clear uptick in transmission among some of the city’s Hasidic communities. Similar tensions simmered in Israel.
Asked about the confrontation aboard the Frontier flight, Yossi Gestetner, a founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, said that “regardless of what may have led to the start of this whole mess-up, what people are accusing airline staff of doing is certainly unacceptable and needs to be addressed.”
“The airline wants the public to believe that 12 people, some not related to each other except for being in the same ethnic group, walked into the airport and onto the airplane with masks and left with masks as seen on videos, but decided to collectively remove all masks while seated,” he said. “It defies logic.”