WASHINGTON (CNN) -- AirTran Airways apologized Friday to members of a Muslim family for kicking them off a plane and refusing to rebook them despite requests from FBI agents who had cleared them of wrongdoing.
Kashif Irfan, left, and his brother Atif Irfan were among family members removed from the flight Thursday.
The families of Atif Irfan, a tax attorney, and his brother Kashif Irfan, an anesthesiologist, were removed from a flight in Washington before takeoff Thursday after a passenger reported hearing Atif Irfan's wife say something suspicious.
The FBI interviewed the family and cleared them of wrongdoing.
"We regret that the issue escalated to the heightened security level it did," AirTran said in a statement Friday afternoon. "But we trust everyone understands that the security and the safety of our passengers is paramount." Read the full statement
The airline said it had refunded the family's money and offered to fly the family home to Washington free.
One family member, Kashif Irfan, said Friday he was "very appreciative and surprised" by AirTran's apology. "It's a very generous gesture," he said.
The statement was an abrupt about-face for the airline, which three hours earlier had issued a press release with an unapologetic description of the incident.
In that statement, the airline said it did not re-book the family only because the security concern had not been resolved, and because one member of the group "became irate and made inappropriate comments."
That account differed from accounts from the family and the FBI. The FBI said agents interviewed the family, resolved the security concerns and then tried to help re-schedule the flight with the airline. The FBI ultimately helped the family book a flight on US Airways. Watch how Muslims find climate of fear at airport »
The dispute occurred about 1 p.m. Thursday as Atif Irfan and his brother Kashif Irfan boarded AirTran flight 175 at Reagan National Airport near Washington for a trip to Orlando, Florida. They were accompanied by their wives, a sister and three children.
Federal officials say a passenger on the plane notified a flight attendant about a suspicious conversation, and the flight attendant notified the pilot and Federal air marshals who were aboard. The pilot asked the air marshals to remove the passengers, said Transportation Security Administration spokesman Christopher White.
"The conversation, as we were walking through the plane trying to find our seats, was just about where the safest place in an airplane is," said Inayet Sahin, Kashif Irfan's wife. "We were [discussing whether it was safest to sit near] the wing, or the engine or the back or the front. But that's it. We didn't say anything else that would raise any suspicion."
The conversation did not contain the words "bomb," "explosion," "terror" or other words that might have aroused suspicion, Atif Irfan said.
"When we were talking, when we turned around, I noticed a couple of girls kind of snapped their heads," said Sobia Ijaz, Atif Irfan's wife. "I kind of thought to myself, 'Oh, you know, maybe they're going to say something.' It didn't occur to me that they were going to make it such a big issue."
Authorities first removed Atif Irfan and Sobia Ijaz, then returned for the rest of the family, including three small children. They also removed a family friend, Abdul Aziz, a Library of Congress attorney who was coincidentally taking the same flight and had been seen talking with the family.
After the FBI interviewed family members, the agency released them, Irfan said.
"The FBI agents actually cleared our names," said Sahin. "They went on our behalf and spoke to the airlines and said, 'There is no suspicious activity here. They are clear. Please let them get on a flight so they can go on their vacation,' and they still refused." Watch Muslims recount how they were kicked off plane »
In statements Thursday night and Friday morning, AirTran said it "complied with all TSA, law enforcement and Homeland Security directives and had no discretion in the matter."
But TSA spokesman White said it was the pilot's decision to remove the family and the airline and pilot had the ultimate authority to decide whether to allow the family back on AirTran flights.
An FBI spokesman confirmed Friday that agents intervened on behalf of the family with AirTran. When AirTran declined to book the family, agents helped them get tickets with US Airways, FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said.
"Our agents went way out of their way to make sure this family went on their trip," Kolko said. iReport.com: Share your story
After the family and friend were taken for questioning, the remaining 95 passengers, the crew and baggage were removed from the plane and rescreened, AirTran said.
Family members said Friday they had not decided whether to accept AirTran's apology, saying there were a variety of opinions.
Meanwhile, an Islamic group -- the Council on Islamic American Relations, or CAIR -- filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees airlines.
"We believe this disturbing incident would never have occurred had the Muslim passengers removed from the plane not been perceived by other travelers and airline personnel as members of the Islamic faith," CAIR said in its complaint.