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January 08, 2009

Idiocy in the Air

by Barbara S. Peterson

Judging from the latest bout of passenger-versus-passenger profiling cases, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the airlines and the government are as woefully unprepared to deal with these ugly episodes as they were right after 9/11.

The latest reminder is the news that JetBlue and the TSA reportedly paid $240,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a passenger, Raed Jarrar, who was ordered to remove a T-shirt with a slogan in both English and Arabic as a condition of his being allowed to fly. 

According to Wired.com: "As Jarrar was waiting to board, TSA officials approached him and said he was required to remove his shirt because passengers were not comfortable with it, according to the lawsuit. The suit claimed one TSA official commented that the Arabic lettering was akin to wearing a T-shirt at a bank stating, 'I am a robber.' " (Italics mine.) Both Jaunted and Newsradio WTMJ 620 AM of Milwaukee ran photos of a T-shirt that presumably is similar to the one worn by Jarrar.

JetBlue denies the bulk of the charges and said that it settled to avoid costly litigation. But it's hardly an isolated case. The disclosure of the settlement came days after a Muslim family was ejected from an AirTran flight because some passengers apparently became alarmed by comments they made about the safest place to sit on a plane.

That some people aboard took that to mean that the group was contemplating a terror attack was bad enough (seriously--is that how a real terrorist would act?). But worse was that it brought down the full force of the security apparatus--a sky marshal aboard sprang into action (action that they rarely see, of course), and the airline called in the FBI to question the "suspects." They were cleared, but the airline at first wouldn't rebook them, another inexcusable response for which the airline later apologized. The offended passengers, most of whom are U.S. citizens who have lived for years in the states, may still sue. 

But let's get back to what started this: It's always the case that someone (typically unnamed) becomes uncomfortable, and, with a plane about to depart and little time to evaluate the facts, the airline typically responds to what it perceives to be the worst-case scenario. I've seen comments on blogs defending the passengers who were alarmed, using the "better safe than sorry" justification. We really ought to be worried about the reaction of those who ought to know better: the airlines' own security people, the TSA. Shouldn't they be trained to respect the rights and the dignity of all passengers? Instead, seven years after 9/11, the public is still on edge (not surprisingly, given all those "if you see something, say something" announcements) and the attitude of the airlines seems to be that they can overreact first and offer their regrets later.

Two years ago, when I was working as a TSA airport screener, one of the first briefing papers I was handed at the airport dealt with passengers wearing head scarfs and the upcoming haj flights for Muslims. We spent part of a training day learning how to screen someone wearing a turban. What was missing from these well-meaning attempts to educate screeners? How to handle passengers who are made uncomfortable about those sartorial manifestations of cultural and religious identity.

Further reading:
* In the Middle, Raed Jarrar's blog
* Jaunted on the AirTran debacle
* On the Fly: The airline industry

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