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Boarding Games

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.

 

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.


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