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
The flight to Philly boarded and took off. Of slightly fewer than 100 passengers, 12 people were searched, five of them black or Latino. I called my editor from a pay phone to remind her that if, while I sat shackled in a windowless room somewhere far below the terminal, she got a call from airport security, she should tell them that I really was a reporter. I began to regret my shabby thrift-store slacks and shabbier thrift-store shirt, and the fact that I hadn‘t shaved that morning, thinking that if I was a little more presentable, they might be more willing to believe me.
I re-positioned myself at Gate 11, where an America West flight to Phoenix and Detroit was about to board. Blue Jump Suit and another man were standing across the terminal, staring at me. Just as the last Phoenix-bound passenger boarded (final tally, not counting children: 11 searched, six of whom were Asian, Latino or Middle Eastern), a stern-faced woman wearing a helmet of bleached-blond hair, flanked by Rod and Blue Jump Suit, introduced herself as a Southwest supervisor and asked if she could speak to me for a moment. I finished writing and stood. She tactfully led me a few yards away, where other passengers wouldn’t hear us. I smiled at Rod and asked him, “How you doing?”
“How you doing?” he replied pointedly.
The blond woman began. “Sir,” she said. “You‘re making some of the passengers very nervous.”
“The passengers?” I asked.
“. . . and you’re making the supervisors nervous,” she went on.
Visions of windowless rooms dancing before me, I explained that I was a reporter working on a story on security screening and fished out my press pass. Never before has it had such a magical effect on people. All my anxiety was for naught. At the mere sight of it, they were instantly relieved, and it was all smiles and tense chuckles from then on. I thanked them for their vigilance, and they left me alone.
The folding table where the searches are conducted at Gate 4B can‘t be seen from the concourse itself. It’s just across a waist-high fence from the Rhino Chasers bar, though, so I went in and ordered a beer. The security guards eyed me unhappily, having noticed, or perhaps been told, that they were being watched. It was a U.S. Airways flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, and of the 23 people searched, eight were nonwhite. I finished my beer and wandered back to Gate 10, where another very crowded flight was about to board. This one, stopping in Sacramento, Portland and Spokane, was by and large predictably pale-skinned. The helmet-haired supervisor stood behind the check-in desk and smiled at me. Recall that on the similarly packed and far darker flight to Nashville, which boarded at this gate two hours earlier, 22 people were searched, only a third of them white. On this flight only seven were selected: four whites, two Latinos and a young Middle Eastern man.
I ate lunch and observed four more flights, including the one I was supposed to board but didn‘t, after which I decided I was no longer a ticketed passenger, and needed some fresh air besides. Only one of those flights was noteworthy, a Southwest flight to Albuquerque and Tampa, uncrowded and largely white. Of the first 60 or so passengers, only six were taken aside and screened (two Latinas, an Asian woman and three whites). The last four people to board the plane were all Latino men in cheap, ill-fitting clothes, with the bony, somewhat awkward bodies of farm laborers, likely fresh from rural Mexico. One after another, each one was stopped and searched. The other three flights were unremarkable except that on each one at least half of the people selected for screening were nonwhite, although all of the flights were overwhelmingly white. It seemed not to have made a difference that my cover had been blown.
A couple of days later I called the airlines, hoping to learn what sort of guidelines they used to single people out for screening, if they were created by the airlines or the FAA, if the airlines even had guidelines at all or left it up to the conscious or unconscious prejudices of gate agents. No one would say. Dan Castelveter, a spokesman for U.S. Airways, apologized but told me, “We will not discuss in any way how we go about screening.” The convenient logic behind this is that “discussions of security measures are in violation of security measures.” Loose lips sink ships, or planes in this case, so don’t bother asking.
What I observed, though, was alarming, if not surprising. Yes, pregnant white women and upstanding, pinstriped Caucasoids of all sorts are regularly taken aside and subjected to the mild humiliation of having their possessions rifled in public, being patted down and asked to remove their shoes and undo their belts and sip from their bottled beverages. But on every single flight, to varying degrees, a disproportionate number of nonwhites were singled out for extra hassle. These were occasionally people of Middle Eastern descent, but far more often the usual targets of racial profiling in America: Latinos and African-Americans. This was true whether the gate agent doing the choosing was white, black or brown, though they usually are white. Having tattoos, dreadlocks or a shaved head, or sporting any kind of turbanlike headgear, seemed to help the chances of being searched, even for whites. Wearing hip-hop gear, or the boots and big belt buckles of a recent immigrant, definitely didn‘t hurt, but what mattered most was race. I have flown repeatedly since September, and have only once been asked to remove my shoes. I don’t expect that streak will last, but neither do I think it would have been remotely possible to sustain were my skin a few shades darker. Poorly dressed and unshaven as I was, I had to hop from gate to gate for an hour, lingering next to “restricted areas,” conspicuously spying and scrawling notes to attract any attention at all, and even then was let off with a smile.