By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I spend a lot of time in airports. Since September 11, I‘ve boarded at least a dozen airplanes, and have tried in an informal way to notice exactly who, at the security checkpoint and at the gate, gets singled out for the new and improved underwear-unfolding, shoe-removing, “would-you-mind-taking-a-sip-of-that-diet-soda-please-sir?” full-body-and-bag pat-down. I have seen my share of little white grannies and Brooks Brothers types assuming the position, but also what seemed like a disproportionate number of nonwhites.
In the interest of more rigorous polling, I decided to spend an entire day at the airport -- or as long as I could bear -- ambling from gate to gate and recording exactly how many people were searched, how the ethnic composition of the searchees compared to that of the flight overall. The good folks at Los Angeles International Airport have apparently observed a dangerous pro-terrorism bias in the press, for they will not let even credentialed journalists past the security checkpoints. Unless, of course, they have tickets. So I was forced to buy the cheapest one I could find and go undercover as a ticketed passenger, a guise that I figured I’d have little trouble pulling off. Who notices a white man with a laptop in an airport?
Sitting in Terminal 1, home to U.S. Airways, Southwest and America West airlines, I had barely begun typing -- making note of the steady hum of wheeled suitcases on the tiled floor, the Santana Muzak on the airport PA system, the peculiar clipped tone men take on as they conduct business on their cell phones, the uniform looks of blank expectancy that people wear as they file off an airplane -- when my laptop battery died. My cover gone, I was forced to resort to a primitive note-pad-and-pen approach, which I knew would draw attention. There are few easier ways of making people nervous than simply sitting in public, looking around and writing.
I found a seat convenient to flights boarding at both gates 3A and 3B, on opposite sides of the concourse, and began tabulating. The first was a Southwest flight to Oakland with about 90 people on board, including, by my count, five Latinos, six African-Americans and four Asians. The airline singled out five people to be searched by security guards at an adjacent table. They included one middle-aged white man in a gray suit, two slightly hippy-dippy 20-something white girls with bandannas on their heads, an older white woman with a perm, and a mustached black man in a navy blazer. Which means 20 percent of those searched were black, though blacks made up fewer than 10 percent of those on board. Still, it was a very small sample.
Across the terminal, a flight to Tucson began boarding, with again about 90 passengers. Tucson being Tucson, all but 10 of them were white. Five people were singled out for the bonus screening: two Latinos, one Asian and two whites. Not reassuring, but still, a tiny sample.
I strolled down to Gate 10, which to my chagrin was crowded enough that there was nowhere I could sit and inconspicuously take notes. To see who was being searched, I had to perch right next to the gate itself in full view of a half-dozen Southwest employees. The flight was leaving for Nashville, then on to Baltimore and Manchester, New Hampshire. Given the usual demographics of airline travel (bleach-stain white), this was a diverse group. At least a third of the well-over-100 people traveling were black or Latino. They began to board, and I began to scribble furiously away. This is what I wrote: “Twentyish white guy. Two young Latinos in Tommy Hilfiger and flannels. One young black woman. Latino with shaved head, Phat Farm parka. Fiftyish white guy with white hair . . .” It went on. Enough people were searched that I began to drop the details. “Young Latino,” I wrote. “Another young Latino. Another. Another. One more.” By the time the plane took off, 22 people had been searched, 15 of them black or Latino.
I had also attracted some attention. A short man in a blue Southwest jump suit had pointed me out to his colleagues, and a half-dozen airline employees stood in an anxious gaggle, observing the scribbler. I got up and headed for Gate 12, where a U.S. Airways flight to Philadelphia was due to board. I sat down and watched two security guards, both short, middle-aged Filipinas in blue blazers bearing a Huntleigh security logo, pull on fresh rubber gloves and ready their wands for metal detecting.
Within a couple of minutes, my friend in the blue jump suit was standing over me, asking if I had a ticket. I said I did, and showed him the printout of my electronic ticket. He looked it over and thanked me. I took out a novel and tried not to look dangerous. A minute later, though, a man in khakis and a blue Southwest polo shirt was in front of me. He introduced himself as Rod, and asked if I was flying today. I was, I told him, but not until 4. I showed him my printout, and he left, but returned a minute later, apologizing, and asking if he could see it again. As soon as he walked off with it, I realized that I had been recycling paper and had printed it out on the back of a poem a friend had written about the September 11 attacks in which the word bomb figured prominently. It seemed to have gotten warmer suddenly. Rod brought my ticket back and thanked me.