Passenger vigilantism strikes again

This time it was Jewish passengers performing a prayer ritual that set off alarms. What the heck is wrong with us?

By Patrick Smith
Published March 18, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)
Omar Shahin, one of six imams removed from a US Airways flight at the Minnepolis-St. Paul International Airport, waits at the Northwest counter, where he successfully purchased a ticket on Nov. 21, 2006.
Omar Shahin, one of six imams removed from a US Airways flight at the Minnepolis-St. Paul International Airport, waits at the Northwest counter, where he successfully purchased a ticket on Nov. 21, 2006.

On Sunday, March 13, crew members of an Alaska Airlines 737 grew startled after three Jewish passengers took part in a prayer ritual during flight. Then three men donned leather arm straps and tefillin -- small boxes containing strips of scripture that devout Jews attach to their foreheads -- and began praying in Hebrew. The crew became so alarmed that the cockpit was placed under "lockdown" and the jet was met at LAX by a phalanx of crash trucks, ambulances, FBI and local police. The three men, all Mexican nationals, were released after questioning.

My reaction to this was to sit, have a glass of cold water, take some deep breaths and picture a Happy Place.

First, the devil's advocate stuff: Realizing that we live in a society that can hardly tell up from down anymore, is it really smart, or necessary, for devotees of whatever faith to engage in this sort of thing during a commercial airline flight? And if you must, would it not be prudent to head off any overreactions by, for example, letting people know what you're doing?

Now, with that out of the way, the bigger question is this: What the heck is the matter with us?

It'd be crass of me to throw my colleagues under the bus, but it does not appear that this was a case of erring on the side of caution. It looks to me like full-blown hysteria. Never mind that Jewish travelers are often seen praying in this fashion, is it really necessary to drop immediately into "Alert Level Orange" crisis mode rather than first using some common bloody sense? How much wasted money and time resulted from this panic?

Passengers are notorious for losing their minds in and around airplanes. As for crews, we have less of an excuse, and there is nothing in our books or protocols that says he have to respond foolishly to every mildly peculiar situation.

But wait, that's not the worst of it.

Ognjen Milatovic, a 37-year-old mathematics professor, was arrested earlier this year at Boston's Logan International Airport after passengers heard "suspicious noises" coming from his carry-on luggage. One passenger told police that he had also seen Milatovic make what was described as a "furtive movement."

When asked about his luggage while the plane was still at the gate, Milatovic reportedly began chatting on his cellphone and refused to put it down. He was cuffed and taken away on charges of disorderly conduct and disobeying the orders of a flight crew -- the latter being a federal offense.

The bag was found to contain keys, a hat, a wallet and a bagel.

We continue to witness troubling acts of passenger hysteria -- as well as sometimes overzealous actions on the part of flight crews. I thought -- or hoped -- this was something we'd left behind several years ago, but apparently not. (Usually, though not always, the suspect passengers are those described loosely as "Middle Eastern-looking" -- a sort of rude shorthand that, in the minds of many Americans, describes an imaginary ethnic zone ranging from, roughly, Morocco to China.) Such reactionary and self-defeating behavior puts much at stake -- your time, your tax dollars, your liberties.

Below are just a few of the greatest hits of Passenger Vigilantism, as seen since the terrorist attacks of 2001: 

  • 2002: U.S. military fighters were scrambled when a group of karaoke singers were seen chatting excitedly and pointing at the Manhattan skyline through the windows of an Air-India 747. 
  • 2004: A Canadian-Pakistani man was removed from a plane in Denver because a flight attendant reasoned he "looked like a wanted terrorist." 
  • 2004: Rumors of terrorist "dry run" rehearsals roar across the Web after passengers witness "suspicious behavior" by a group of traveling musicians from Syria onboard a Northwest Airlines flight to Los Angeles. 
  • 2006: Architect Raed Jarrar was removed from a JetBlue flight after refusing to remove a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "We Will Not Be Silenced" in English and Arabic. (Jarrar was later awarded $240,000 in a settlement with TSA and JetBlue.) 
  • 2006: A Mumbai-bound Northwest Airlines flight returned to Amsterdam under cover of the Dutch air force fighters when passengers became concerned over a boisterous group of Muslim passengers returning from a trade fair. 
  • 2006: A United Airlines flight en route between London and Washington was intercepted by F-15 fighters when a 59-year-old female passenger became unruly and urinated on the cabin floor. After diverting to Boston, the aircraft was evacuated on the runway and passengers were delayed several hours while canine units inspected hundreds of checked suitcases. 
  • 2006: A Delta jet made an emergency landing in San Antonio, Texas, because -- brace yourselves -- a passenger spent an unusual amount of time in the lavatory. The man, a resident of San Antonio, was detained and questioned, including a physical search of his home, before the FBI pronounced him "not suspicious at all." 
  • 2006: An American Airlines flight made an emergency stop in Tampa, Fla., after the cabin crew discovered two lavatories with locked doors -- and apparently nobody inside them. Police and TSA officials unlocked the doors and found the bathrooms ... empty. (Mind you, locked lavatory doors can be easily opened from the outside, if need be.) 
  • 2008: Nine Muslim passengers headed for a vacation in Florida were kicked off an AirTran flight in Washington, D.C. The nine, eight of whom were Americans, including several women and children, had roused suspicion by talking about the location of emergency exits and discussing which were the safest seats. 

And my favorite of all....

  • In 2004, a United Airlines 747 jettisoned thousands of gallons of jet fuel over the Pacific and returned to Australia after a discarded airsickness bag was discovered in a lavatory with the letters "BOB" written across it. What, you ask, is so nefarious about the letters "BOB," from the perspective of a crew member who might find such a message? Don't ask me. United, though, for reasons that defy precedent or explanation, took the letters to mean bomb on board, and went all the way back to Sydney. Because, as we know, terrorists are apt to advertise the detonation of an explosive device ahead of time by means of a cryptic acronym scrawled on a barf bag.

And so on.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his website and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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