Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Flying While Brown

I am pasting below a nice article from the Wall Street Journal discussing racial discrimination on airplanes. I just wanted to note in reference to this peice that is there is a huge difference between being vigilant, and allowing stereotypes to cause one to discriminate against someone based on skin color or appearance in general.

The Wall Street Journal
May 7, 2003

Airlines Have No Excuse For Racial Discrimination

Last month, flight attendants on a New York-bound flight grew suspicious
of a well-dressed, Arab-looking man. He had been ringing his call button
repeatedly asking for water. He sat with his hands in a bag, making
"weird hand motions," according to one passenger, and silently chanting
as if in a trance.

Flight attendants whispered to nearby passengers to keep a close eye on
him. As the plane descended to land, he pulled out a non-English
language book with pictures of angels on it and read. Police met the
plane and questioned the man.

He turned out to be an executive with American Express Co., and passed a
background check. In the bag: "worry beads."

That incident, undoubtedly humiliating for the passenger and downright
unnecessary, illustrates just how much fear there is on airplanes these
days. Now, after two wars, the initial shock of the 2001 terrorist
attacks may have faded a bit, but the fear that many feel may never
disappear. Many of us -- passengers and crew alike -- need worry beads.

The airline experience always seems to bring out the worst in us. There
is tremendous stress, lots of people packed into tight space and, for
some, a fear of death. That was before the terrorist attacks, which
certainly took stress and fear to a new level.

The Department of Transportation recently outlined just how high the
fear level reached in a discrimination suit filed against AMR Corp.'s
American Airlines. The suit paints an ugly picture of harassment of
passengers whose only transgression was appearing Arab. Some of the
passengers were platinum-level frequent fliers on American. Some had
"secret" U.S. government security clearances. One was a Hispanic pilot
for another airline. Another was an employee of American.

Hamdy Abou-Husesin, a U.S. citizen of Egyptian descent, was waiting to
board a Boston-Washington American Eagle flight in November 2001, on his
way to meet his wife for an anniversary celebration. Even though his
boarding pass said "*CLR*" -- meaning he hadn't been singled out by the
passenger-profiling system for further scrutiny -- he was paged to
American's counter and sent for secondary screening. During questioning,
a Massachusetts state trooper got on his radio and repeatedly said,
"He's from Egypt." Despite passing that screening, Mr. Abou-Husesin was
told that the pilot was denying him boarding. He was booked on a flight
to Baltimore.

Much the same thing happened had happened in October 2001 to Maneesh
Agarawal, a citizen of India flying from Boston to San Jose, Calif. He
was screened twice, had his luggage searched, and then was pulled off
the plane for additional questions, according to the DOT. A police
officer told him some flight attendants were suspicious of him because
"he did not make eye contact with them," according to the DOT, and the
flight crew refused to take him. American booked him on a later flight,
upgrading him to first class.

In all, the DOT cited 11 instances of flight crews discriminating
against Arab-appearing passengers. All happened in the first few months
after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when security was still chaotic and
fear was still sky-high.

In aviation, captains have ultimate authority over the ship. Indeed,
federal rules governing aviation hold the captain responsible. But
that's only within the bounds of the laws of the nation. You can't throw
someone off an airplane because you don't like his or her looks. Federal
law also prohibits airlines from discriminating against air travelers
because of their race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin or

American backs its crews. The airline says it "vehemently" denies the
DOT's allegations, contending that crews were only following directives
from President Bush and the U.S. attorney general to be vigilant in the
months after the terrorist attacks, and were operating in an
unprecedented climate. The airline said that just such vigilance
prevented accused terrorist Richard Reid from igniting a bomb hidden in
his shoes that likely would have sent a wide-body jet to the bottom of
the Atlantic Ocean.

"We are confident that our crew members' actions will be vindicated,"
the airline said.

While discrimination of any kind is abhorrent, you do have to have some
sympathy for the situation facing airline crews shortly after the
terrorist attacks -- especially for workers at American and UAL Corp.'s
United Airlines, who saw their jets and their co-workers crashed by
terrorists. And it would seem even the Department of Transportation does
have some sympathy. The maximum fine the DOT is seeking against American
is only $65,000 total -- pocket change by federal-fine standards. Recent
fines against airlines for violating federal regulations on wheelchair
service for passengers with disabilities were much higher.

American is clearly not unique in this kind of behavior. A DOT spokesman
says the agency can't comment on possible investigations at other
airlines, but there have been numerous discrimination complaints against
others. In fact, American actually has a far better record than most.
Last year, American had fewer discrimination complaints filed at DOT,
per passenger, than every other major airline but Delta Air Lines.

Today, it's a lot harder to excuse any acts of discrimination. Flying is
a lot safer. The biggest single change that does the most to prevent
hijackings is the installation, just completed last month, of
bomb-proof, bullet-proof cockpit doors. Those reinforced doors mean that
an attacker can't get in, and a pilot should never come out in the event
of an attack. Stabbing passengers won't give you control of the airplane.

Those who are still scared should consider packing their own worry
beads. It's time for civility and respect to return.


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