James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Security theater

  • Friday Update: Filibuster, Surveillance State, Political Macho, and Other Hardy Perennials

    A word we should use more frequently ("filibuster"), and one we should use less ("tough")

    1) Fun with filibusters. Here we go again. Fellow news writers, it is really not that hard to work the word "filibuster" into your stories that deal with minority obstructionism. Yesterday we learned from the AP:

    WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bowing to the Pentagon, the Senate agreed after impassioned debate Thursday to leave the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders in a struggle that highlighted the growing role of women in Congress.

    The vote was 55-45 in favor of stripping commanders of that authority, but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

    In the same length or less, you can be clearer about what happened. See for yourself:

    [before] but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

    [after] but that was short of the 60 needed to break a threatened filibuster of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's bill.

    Why does this matter? Because of the venerable "defining deviancy downward" phenomenon. Through the first two centuries of American history, it was not normal to apply a 60-vote filibuster threat to every routine piece of legislation. That's a recent innovation, and distortion. Each time press reports treat a 60-vote threshold as normal, they contribute to a de facto rewriting of the Constitution.

    Seriously, it's very easy to do this the right way.

    2) Fun with security over-reach. Or maybe not so fun. I am grateful to a reader and fellow Cirrus pilot who sends this note about a surveillance intrusion I find surprising, even given everything else we've learned.

    You can read all the details from Papers, Please, and in the court complaint filed last month, but here is the gist: Armed Customs/Border Patrol agents (CBP) detained and questioned a U.S. citizen whose citizenship was never in doubt, and who was not trying to leave or enter the country. They did so based on the contents of romantic messages they had somehow seen in her personal email. As it happens, this citizen was a 50-something professor at Indiana University (and former CBS employee—as you'll see, her age is relevant), and the detention took place about as far as you can get from any U.S. border, in Indianapolis.

    I've written to CBP to ask their side of the story, but at face value it seems to be another of the ratchet-like expansions of routine surveillance/security-state extensions that over time become the new normal. It's almost as if you put a frog into a pot of lukewarm water ...

    3) China, Russia, and Ukraine. The backstory here involves China's ongoing attempts to match its recently tightened internal political controls with its desire to expand its "soft power" attraction to the rest of the world. CNN's Jaime FlorCruz and Paul Armstrong do a nice job of explaining a related dilemma: how China tries to balance its desire to improve Sino-Russian relations with its longstanding Rule Number One of foreign policy, which is that countries should mind their own business and not interfere in one another's affairs. The story explains what this means for Ukraine and Crimea and what China is likely to do.

    Bonus background point: For both better and worse, the Chinese leadership has less experience as a participant in fast-breaking international crises than do European countries, Russia, or of course the U.S. Therefore its first reaction when trouble brews up is often to seem paralyzed. Sometimes that creates problems, but overall it's probably healthier than a trigger-happy impulse to do something in response to the emergencies of each news cycle.

    Which leads us to ...

    4) Fun with manliness. Usually there is no point quoting from or even mentioning NYT op-ed columns. The ones that are interesting you already know about.

    But because I found myself agreeing with every single word of the opening paragraph of the latest column by Tom Friedman, I wanted to say so, and quote the paragraph. His column began:

    Just as we’ve turned the coverage of politics into sports, we’re doing the same with geopolitics. There is much nonsense being written about how Vladimir Putin showed how he is “tougher” than Barack Obama and how Obama now needs to demonstrate his manhood. This is how great powers get drawn into the politics of small tribes and end up in great wars that end badly for everyone. We vastly exaggerate Putin’s strength—so does he—and we vastly underestimate our own strength, and ability to weaken him through nonmilitary means.

    Yes about the everything-as-sport pathology of the media. Yes about the conversion of everything into "toughness." (If you don't know anything about the substance of an issue—hey, where is this Crimea place anyway?—you can always sound authoritative about who snookered whom, who blinked, etc.) Yes about great powers and small wars.* Yes about misreading Russia's (or China's) strength, and our own.

    It would be OK with me if Friedman made this the boilerplate first (or last) paragraph of every column he writes for a while.

    While I'm at it, I might as well cite a paragraph from Nick Kristof I agreed with too. He quotes bellicose rantings from usual pro-interventionist suspects, ranging from John McCain to the Washington Post's editorial page. He replies:

    Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say “do something!” We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by American warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce President Vladimir Putin’s narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.

    Here is something to think about: Friedman and Kristof, who are warning against the impulse to prove our "toughness" by shooting things up, spent significant shares of their reporting careers based in the actual world, outside the United States. Many of the people who are most insistently yelling "Do something!" or "Obama's a wimp," from commentators to politicians, have a firsthand experience of "toughness" and its consequences largely confined to the Acela Corridor, attack ads, think tanks and policy papers, and the green room.**

    Bear that in mind when you hear the next get-tough announcement on cable news or read it in a column. Does this person's imagination of "face" and toughness extend much outside the U.S. political realm?

    __

    * To spare those tempted to write in and remind me: Yes in fact I am aware that a dozen years ago Friedman was very prominently in the "do something!" camp about Iraq. I'll let you search for the "suck on this" video yourself. I disagreed with him then but very much agree with him now.

    ** John McCain is an obvious exception. That he so bravely withstood and surmounted his ordeal as a POW in Vietnam remains to his lasting credit and will always deserve respect. It also took place in an entirely different strategic world—Vietnam now often acts as a de facto U.S. ally in struggles over Chinese influence in the Pacific. His claim to AIPAC that "nobody believes in American strength" suggests to me that he needs to get out more.

  • Edward Snowden in Hong Kong

    I'm glad we have this information; I am sorry we are getting it from Hong Kong.

    Three points:


    1) I believe what I wrote two days ago: that the United States and the world have gained much more, in democratic accountability, than they have lost in any way with the revelation of these various NSA monitoring programs. That these programs are legal -- unlike the Nixon "Plumbers" operation, unlike various CIA assassination programs, unlike other objects of whistle-blower revelations over the years -- is the most important fact about them. They're being carried out in "our" name, ours as Americans, even though most of us have had no idea of what they entailed. The debate on the limits of the security-state is long overdue, and Edward Snowden has played an important role in hastening its onset.

    2) Among the strongest arguments against a surveillance state is that it depends on the subjective judgment of its millions of employees (a) to be applied without over-reach or abuse, or (b) to exist at all. One 29-year-old has just demonstrated the second point. Edward Snowden didn't like the way the system worked, and so he has effectively blown it up. The bigger problem may be with the first point, option (a) -- people who think there should be more intrusiveness  or prying. The Founders' fundamental concern, often distilled as "If men were angels...", was to avoid giving anyone powers that, in the wrong hands, could be abused. The surveillance state is giving too many people too much power -- either to destroy its workings, as Snowden has tried to do, or to abuse and extend them.

    3) I am sorry that Snowden chose Hong Kong as his point of refuge. To be clear: I love Hong Kong. My own brother lived there for many years; I like everything about its verve of life and energy; I admire the determination of its press, judicial institutions, and civil society to maintain their independence after the transfer from British control to that of the People's Republic of China. As shown by these amazing headlines last week in the South China Morning Post (sent by a friend) on the 24th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square crackdown:

    SCMP1.png

    And:

    SCMP3.png

    But here is the reality. Hong Kong is not a sovereign country. It is part of China -- a country that by the libertarian standards Edward Snowden says he cares about is worse, not better, than the United States. China has even more surveillance of its citizens (it has gone very far toward ensuring that it knows the real identity of everyone using the internet); its press is thoroughly government-controlled; it has no legal theory of protection for free speech; and it doesn't even have national elections. Hong Kong lives a time-limited separate existence, under the "one country, two systems" principle, but in a pinch, it is part of China

    I don't know all the choices Snowden had about his place of refuge. Maybe he thought this was his only real option. But if Snowden thinks, as some of his comments seem to suggest, that he has found a bastion of freer speech, then he is ill-informed; and if he knowingly chose to make his case from China he is playing a more complicated game.

    And one more point: I have friends who work at Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden's employer at the time he (apparently) decided to leak the PRISM info. I am sure they disagree with my claim that the leaks have done more good than harm. I am sorry for the damage to their firm, which is another reminder of the danger and folly of creating systems that can be upended by one dissenting voice.
  • 'I Cannot Figure Out Why This Was Classified to Begin With'

    What the PRISM leaks have in common with the Pentagon Papers

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    Today this note came in from a reader in Florida, about the revelations of NSA phone-surveillance programs:

    In general, I'm partial to ACLU and EFF arguments about privacy and civil liberties in the digital age. But I'm also a pragmatist about national security, and the reality that there are foreign and domestic terrorists who will kill many innocent citizens if they can...

    Now the security damage from these leaks becomes a bit clearer for me. Prior to these revelations, I doubt that Al-Qaeda or domestic terrorist groups (e.g., Aryan Brotherhood) could figure out how they were routinely identified and compromised. They probably assumed an informant betrayed them, or they simply assumed that they were exposed by bad luck. But now, the smarter (therefore more dangerous) terrorists know that their cell phone patterns and networks are likely the problem.

    What to do if you're a terrorist? If it were me, I'd have everyone in my network throw away their cell phone periodically, purchase a new prepaid phone with cash, and distribute new phone numbers via secure means. Maybe I would use clandestine meetings. Or pay phones. Or dead drops. The point is, a very valuable (and top secret) intelligence collection tool has been compromised.
    I wrote back to the reader saying, more politely, Are you kidding? Terrorist or criminal groups would not have to wait for the PRISM revelations to guess that cell phone traffic might give them away. All they would have to do is watch any American movie or TV show produced since about 1985. Half the action in the first few seasons of The Wire involved "burner phones"; think of 24, Breaking Bad, or any other depiction of groups trying to operate outside the authorities' view. Everything now known about Osama bin Laden's final off-the-grid years suggests his scrupulous awareness of the perils of leaving an electronic trail.

    My point is not that crime drama is a perfect representation of reality, nor to set this reader up as a straw man, since he's provided a long stream of otherwise-astute observations. Rather I'm using his message to highlight one of the most striking aspects of the PRISM revelations: the unusual risk/reward balance in this latest large-scale leak.

    The ethics of disclosing classified information can sometimes be a very close call. I don't mean for the government-employee leaker. Those who signed a pledge to protect information are at best breaking their word, and at worst breaking the law and perhaps putting people in danger, when they divulge secrets, even when they believe they are serving a higher cause. I am talking instead about the ethics of the reporter or publisher who receives the leaked info, and the public that absorbs it. If a news story reveals that a certain detail came from inside the North Korean leadership, to choose a recent example -- or from an al Qaeda confidante, or an Iranian scientist -- that disclosure might dry up future information, alert the other group to the presence of a mole, or put that source in mortal danger. Disclosure may still be worth it, but it's not an easy call -- especially when the the very details that would endanger sources would make no difference to most ordinary readers.

    But when it comes to PRISM? At face value, it seems to be one of the most clearly beneficial "security violations" in years. Why?
    • On the plus side, for the general public it is of very significant value to know (rather than suspect) that such a program has been underway. President Obama says that he is "happy to debate" the tradeoff between security and privacy. The truth is that we probably wouldn't be having any such debate, and we certainly couldn't have a fully informed debate, if this program (and others) remained classified. The greatest harm done by the 9/11 attacks was setting the US on a ratchet-track toward "preventive" wars overseas and security-state distortions at home. In withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has partially redressed the overseas aspect of that equation. (On the other hand: drones.) These leaks, which he denounces, may constitute our hope for redressing the domestic part.

    • And on the minus side, what about the harm of the PRISM revelations? Again at face value, it seems minimal. American citizens have learned that all their communications may have been intercepted. Any consequential terrorist or criminal group worth worrying about must have assumed this all along.
    This brings me to Fred Kaplan's interview just now, in Slate, with Brian Jenkins, of RAND. Jenkins is an expert in terrorism whom I have known for decades and have often quoted in our pages -- for instance seven years ago, in my "Declaring Victory" article. Now he tells Fred Kaplan that he worries about the implications of the security-state infrastructure the U.S. has erected. For context: Jenkins was a Special Forces combat veteran in Vietnam and is not a reflexive dove. All of his comments are worth reading, but this about the PRISM revelations really struck me:
    "I cannot figure out why this was classified to begin with. It should have been in the public domain all along. The fact is, terrorists know we're watching their communications. Well, some of them, it seems, are idiots, but if they were all idiots, we wouldn't need a program like this. The sophisticated ones, the ones we're worried about, they know this. There are debates we can have in public without really giving away sensitive collection secrets. It's a risk, but these are issues that affect all of us and our way of life."
    There is a lot more to learn about this program, its reach into public life, its alleged or real benefits, and the possible consequences of its revelation. But at face value, I feel about this news the way I did when the Pentagon Papers were unveiled many decades ago. The public has learned something important about policies carried out in its name, at what seems -- for now -- a modest cost to vulnerable individuals or national safety as a whole.
  • Rice, Power, Obama—and NSA

    The good and bad of today's political news

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    To overgeneralize, in foreign policy I consider Susan Rice and Samantha Power to be "liberal interventionists." What is American power for, if it is not to do good in the world? (Rice at center, Power at left in Reuters photo.)

    In the same broad strokes, I consider Barack Obama to be a "liberal non-interventionist," or more simply still a "realist." How long will American power last, if we are not very careful about how we use it? If Dwight Eisenhower were alive, this would be the category for him. (And, as the Eisenhower comparison probably reveals, this is the outlook I am most comfortable with.) Obama's main deviation from this pattern was his approval in 2009 of the temporary troop surge in Afghanistan. But he made this decision only a few months into his term, and the evidence suggests that he later regretted buying the arguments/promises/fantasies from Generals Petraeus and McChrystal that with more time, troops, and money the Afghanistan war could be won.

    The liberal-realist president has now elevated two prominent exponents of a liberal-interventionist view different from his own. Does this suggest a change in overall Administration policy? I doubt it (despite an argument that it might, from Fred Kaplan). The available evidence also suggests that -- ever more so the deeper he goes into his service -- Obama knows and trusts his own judgment, even to a fault. So you can argue that it's a positive sign that a president is comfortable enough to surround himself with people he trusts personally and who will present a range of views. Eg Rice on the one side, Hagel on the other, Kerry and Biden somewhere else, etc. That's the positive side of today's news.

    The negative side? The NSA PHONE SURVEILLANCE STORY!! For the moment, this quick post by Joshua Foust makes good sense to me. Central argument: the Congress keeps voting for these surveillance rights. This is the fruit of a decade's worth of open-ended "war on terror." More to come.
    ___
    * Nomenclature update: Why does the headline say just " -- and NSA," rather than " -- and the NSA"? Because by intelligence-world convention, you can say "the National Security Agency" but you're supposed to say "NSA" without a "the." In the paragraph above a sentence starts "The NSA phone surveillance story" because that "the" refers to "story."  The next time you hear a Congressional hearing involving NSA, which could be very soon, listen to hear officials say, "Meanwhile, NSA was beginning a program" etc. 
  • First They Came for the Chinese Tourists, Then They Came for the Yeshiva Students ...

    Air travel as indicator of fray points in society

    Last week I mentioned the accusations in the state-run Chinese press that Chinese travelers to America were getting brusque treatment from United Airlines, allegedly because they were Chinese. Two days ago some 100 high school seniors from Yeshivah of Flatbush, in Brooklyn, were made to leave an AirTran flight, allegedly (according to a Time story) because of bias against a "visibly Jewish" group. According to the AirTran flight crew, it was because the kids wouldn't sit down and turn off their cell phones when told to do so. You can see a picture of some of the kids at the NY Daily News site. Of course there is a long skein of similar rumblings from the modern world of the skies: flying while black; flying while brown; flying while half-Arab and half-Jewish; flying your own plane while Hasidic; flying your own plane from California; and so on.

    Now, three putting-it-in perspective responses. First, a defense of the specific United Airlines staffer singled out for criticism in the Chinese press. I didn't use this person's name in my earlier item, even though it was all over the original piece in the People's Daily, and I've also removed it from the reader's note below. You can find it on your own, but I figure there is no point in feeding a name unnecessarily into the world's search-engine bots. (I have tried to contact this staffer, so far with no results.) But, with permission, I'm using the real name of the reader, Joseph Gualtieri of Hong Kong. He writes:

    I just saw your post about the United Airlines-related article in the People Daily. It so happens that I have encountered XX [the UAL agent] before, and I feel I should jump in to complement the image portrayed in that article.

    Back in March I flew from Hong Kong (where I live) to New York (where I'm from) upon the birth of my first niece. The flight path was a bit weird: direct from HKG to EWR and then LGA-ORD-HKG. Anyway, my flight back from LGA to ORD was an early one and, long story short, I got mixed up and ended up back at EWR and not at LGA. I'm an anxious guy even when the going is good and when I realized my error I was literally shaking with dread at the prospect of missing my connection in Chicago (there there was only an hour to transfer), having to buy a new ticket back to HK, missing work engagements, all that.

    Well, it was my good fortunate to encounter XX. Beginning with "I'm totally screwed, because..." I told her my situation. She gave me possibly the sweetest smile I've ever seen, told me not to worry, and stepped away to make a phone call. Thirty seconds, maybe a minute later she had me on a direct flight from EWR and HKG (UA 116).  I remember her name, and always will remember her name, as a consequence of the great kindness she showed me. In fact, I feel like that was the best customer service experience of my life: through sheer idiocy, I messed everything up and United responded by giving me what was, in effect, a superior product (i.e. a more expensive seat on a direct flight).

    I also want to point out that I'm by no means an elite flyer; I was flying economy (regular, not even premium economy) and I hadn't yet reached silver status on Mileage Plus, not exactly the kind of guy an airline "should" go out of its way to accommodate. Obviously I have no idea what the true story behind the People's Daily article is, but I can tell you that XX is hands down the kindest, most helpful airline employee that I have ever met (or, frankly, than I can imagine)....

    Thanks for reading and do consider at least alluding to this experience if you should revisit this subject. Given that she was mentioned by name in the People's Daily, I just think, in this era of false equivalence, it's important to point out that she was, at least this one time, insanely understanding.

    Noted, with thanks. On the other hand, from an expat I know who has lived for a long time in Asia, this contrary report:

    I have American friends here [in China] who now refuse to fly United because they have witnessed so many instances of flight attendant rudeness to Chinese passengers.  I still take UA, for its convenient routes, but I share their view that far too many United flight attendants;
      a. radiate contempt for passengers who don't speak English
      b. take a very harsh, downright nasty, approach to any incident involving Chinese passengers who aren't sure what is expected of them, or aren't doing what is expected of them by UA's policies.
     
    Of course there are exceptions, many.  But this seems to be the rule.  UA flight attendants are not known for their patience and charm under the best of circumstances, with any passengers, but a plane that is 2/3 full of Chinese passengers seems to bring out the absolute worst in them....

    [Is it anti-Chinese "bias"?]  I think it's normal rudeness made worse by their refusal to acknowledge that the passengers in question do not understand English and therefore are dependent on the airline to make extra efforts to communicate.  It's not their fault that they don't speak English.  United wants these people's business.  Facial expressions and tones of voice that express annoyance and contempt are way, way out of line. 

    The Continental crews, who insist on referrring to themselves as Continental crews when I speak with them on the Beijing/Newark flights, are better.

    This rings true to my overall experience, on the dozens of mostly-United flights I have taken between North America and Beijing or Shanghai. (Including the ongoing self-identification of the "Ex-Cons," the former Continental crews.) The passenger load seems to be increasingly Chinese -- which is good! Some of these Chinese passengers seem to be taking their first-ever airplane trip, and most of them are from a domestic-Chinese airline culture that just works differently from America's. Domestic Chinese passengers may be accustomed to people walking around when the airplane is taxiing, having the cabin crew give ineffectual suggestions rather than orders, etc. When I can find it, I'll insert a picture of a domestic flight in China in which passengers were lined up in the aisle, bags in hand, as the plane touched down. Not many of these travelers are comfortable in English. Thus the scenario the reader describes.

    But, again, is it "bias"? For our final word I turn to a rabbi from the Midwest, who says of the Yeshivah of Flatbush / AirTran episode:

    While I wasn't a witness to what happened onboard, I question the veracity of the claims made by the adult chaperones of the yeshiva students who were forced off the plane because of Anti-Semitism. I'm wondering if it's just another example of flight attendants who have a zero tolerance because of how they feel about their unhappy professional lives  - as you've opined about in the past - or of inappropriate passenger behavior that was simply intolerable for other passengers and crew.

    This rabbi adds that "I travel frequently and am easily identifiable as someone who is Jewish (i.e. I wear a kippah (yarmulke)). I have never experienced anti-Semitism at the hands of a flight attendant or pilot." I think he's right, in the sentence from his message that I've put in bold. Air travel is becoming a leading-edge indicator of many of the fray-points in modern life, from the unhappy outlook of many who work in the industry, to the increasing incursions of security-state thinking into travel aboard aircraft large or small.

    And in case you're wondering about the headline...

  • Annals of the Security State: Hypotheses

    Why not call it 'spatial profiling'?

    Thumbnail image for 130523searches.jpgI'm going to wait a little while before putting up more first-hand accounts from people who have been subjected to stop-and-frisk in the skies. In a sense -- perhaps like normal stop-and-frisk -- the stories are all the same. In the aviation cases, pilots who have carefully followed all known rules:

    • find themselves surrounded by armed DHS/FBI/DEA/local-police forces when they land at out-of-the-way airports;
    • are detained for between two and four hours while dog-equipped teams inspect all their luggage and every part of the plane;
    • in many of the cases I've recounted the pilots are taken from the plane at gunpoint, as in the photo; and
    • eventually they're let go. The troops are looking for drugs, or terrorists, or something else, but whatever they have in mind, they haven't found it on these planes.
    For now, a few attempts at interpretation. Yes, before you ask, I have queries out to my contacts at the DHS and the FAA. Here we go, starting with a short theory from a reader:
    The worst thing is, like the person who complained about the Google SMS search decision, people feel like there is nothing we can do about the loss of liberties" "I know this is a useless cry into the void."
     
    But what upsets me most, personally, is when I hear of these "wars" and recall Ronald Reagan's famous statement "We declared war on poverty, and poverty won."
     
    How come the poverty war gets to end, but the wars on terror and drugs are interminable?
    A longer and more intricate speculation, from someone who is head of a software company:
    I wonder if, in your Annals Of The Security State, you've stumbled into someone's intelligence operation.  Here's what strikes me:

    a) We have a series of remarkably similar incidents in which private pilots are suspected of smuggling something -- drugs, money, or people.

    b) None of the people involved seem very likely to actually be drug smugglers.  Indeed, they're all the sort of people whom police agencies tend to work hard to avoid annoying, because they're often in a position to return the favor through influential friends or through their attorneys.

    c) None of the people involved, however, are celebrities, and none of the planes are corporate. In other words, none of the planes carried someone whose brief detention would in itself be news.  That might be notable because the rich and famous are overrepresented in the ranks of private aviation. 

    d) These detentions were costly and inconvenient to law enforcement agencies. You've got representatives of three agencies, a couple of airport managers, and local police tied up for hours. At the end of the day, you've got an angry pilot and no evidence. Someone has a lot of grousing during the long drive home.

    e) In the most recent report, either FlightAware was wrong, or your correspondent lied to you about something you could very likely check and which your readers at the FAA certainly could check. And, if he was lying, he's called attention to his own criminal act for which he'd otherwise escaped scrutiny.

    These incidents appear at first to resemble TSA nuisances, but I expect something else is happening. Specifically, someone is mounting a disinformation campaign against an inter-agency task force that has something to do with high-value air shipments by private plane from Mexico to the US.

    In the 1960s, to do this you'd either suborn someone on the task force or you'd plant a mole. Either way, you'd need someone who could add false data to the files or apply legitimate clues to innocuous subjects. You'd need Kim Philby. And that might be the case here.

    Alternatively, this might be electronic cat and mouse. Team A is mining databases, looking for suspicious people and suspicious planes.  Team B is quietly planting clues and, perhaps, swapping FlightAware records, in order (1) to protect actual flights, and (2) to lead Team A's superiors to doubt their reliability. You want to swap, not delete, the records because, as you note, airplanes leave lots of evidence (gas receipts, ATC contacts) and the systems are built to notice missing planes. You want to avoid celebrities because, if you surround Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian or the treasurer of a Fortune 500 Company or someone running for the Texas Railroad Commission with guns and blue lights, people are going to look very carefully at the source of the disinformation.

    The pattern of trumped-up searches is especially disturbing.  I wonder how common this is?  I think this may be an important question for rule of law -- much like your false equivalence series:  if people assume that the 4th amendment is a dead letter and that police routinely plant or fake evidence, they simply aren't going to trust the law.

    From someone who is both a pilot and member of the judiciary:
    Just read your recent stories re this. Of course, I'm horrified, but, honestly, I'm a little surprised it took so long for this to start happening. It seemed to me at the time that 9/11 allowed non-pilots to be aware that a VFR flight can take place with no notice or permission, and even my worldly friends were aghast at this idea.  During the weeks after 9/11, I was sure that those freedoms would never be restored to us, and I was profoundly moved when they were....

    I have also sensed that, once having had the chance to restrict uncontrolled flight slip through their grasp, those who were suspicious of GA [general aviation] would seize any opportunity to begin squeezing it off.  Only making sure that these extra-legal violations of the rights and privileges of aviation are done in the sunlight can prevent this, and I thank you for writing about these terrifying events.

    (I realize I am sounding just like my friends and acquaintances who believe the current administration has a grand plan for disarming the public and who are buying up all the ammunition and rifles in sight, and I don't know how to resolve that contradiction in my belief system.)

    From someone who sees a connective theme:
    I've been surprised not yet to see someone pointing out the common thread in the plane stops--that everyone's flying from California--and linking that to what you routinely see on the roads in the midwest.

    My brother drives to see our parents in Iowa from California once every couple of years with his wife. On two different recent trips, he was stopped for no reason by the highway patrol, once in Nebraska, for failing to signal a lane change with enough notice, and once in Iowa for a "broken taillight" (which was not broken). In Nebraska, he and his wife were questioned separately and at length. In Iowa, the patrol backed off when my brother expressed indignation and recorded a badge number. Both my brother and his wife are blond, white schoolteachers.

    On the last trip, after the Iowa stop, my siblings and father and I were at a Boy Scout camp for my nephew's family night, and happened to run into an old acquaintance who is now a police officer. We told him about the stops, and he just nodded and said, "yeah, about 90% of the California plates you see here are running drugs."

    Maybe Jerry Brown can do something about the continuing and expanding criminalization of California?
    Not just California but also Colorado:
    I wonder if the federal authorities' enthusiasm for stopping and searching eastbound private planes from California to the east coast could be related to a story NPR's Planet Money team reported recently entitle "marijuana arbitrage." 

    The gist of the story is, legalization (or medicalization) of marijuana in California has pushed down the prices for the product there, although the prices remain high in the east where the traditional legal environment still reigns.  Growers and sellers see the money to be made by buying cheap in the west and selling dear in the east and just need to find a way to get their product from source to customer.  If private planes are a primary vehicle, and the feds are onto that, it could explain the over-the-top response given to pilots originating in the west and landing in the east.
     
    Really, did we  learn NOTHING from Prohibition?
    And a new Colorado/California-inclusive name for what we are seeing:
    Why not call it "spacial profiling"? Any flight heading east from the apparently drug-soaked western states seems to be vulnerable only because of its origin and destination.
  • Annals of the Security State: Turboprop Edition

    "At this point I was shaking in my boots. I was absolutely concerned they were going to plant something in my aircraft."

    You can find previous entries here, here, here, and here, with other links included in those items. Today's installment comes from David Blackburn, of San Diego, who like most of the recent correspondents has agreed to let me use his real name to tell about an encounter with the authorities late in 2010. 

    The details follow in his own words, but this is the gist:
    • MU2.jpgBlackburn, a businessman and pilot, was making a normal and by-the-book flight from his home in San Diego, to a training base in Tennessee, and stopped for gas in Texas en route. He was flying a turboprop Mitsubishi MU-2 plane, with its very distinctive low-slung look. (Similar model, not his plane, shown at right.)

    • While in Texas, he overheard DHS officials calling the local airport manager on a phone-answering machine, asking that Blackburn be detained.

    • He left and went on to Tennessee, where on landing he was surrounded by police, in the way that is becoming familiar.

    • After being held and questioned for four hours, he was finally released. At no point was there any reason to think he had done anything wrong.

    • All this while, every inch of his progress across the country had already been monitored by air-traffic control authorities, with whom he had checked in throughout his flight. There is no comparable degree of monitoring in the normal ground-based travel world. To imagine it, think of motorists having to radio in their location to Highway Patrol officials every 20 or 30 miles along the Interstate, or whenever they changed course -- and meanwhile having devices that transmitted their position, speed, and altitude to federal authorities every few seconds. That is how aviation works for planes like this*. So before Blackburn's flight began and at every minute he was underway, government officials knew who he was and where he was going. Still he was the object of a manhunt. [* By "planes like this" I mean high-speed pressurized craft traveling at altitudes above 18,000 feet, where all trips must be under "Instrument Flight Rules" and subject to guidance from air-traffic control.]
    Like the other people I have quoted, David Blackburn is not making any claim for special sympathy. Like other members of the pilot population, he is overall very fortunate, and is used to being on the right rather than the wrong end of scrutiny from the law. Rather I offer these cameos as examples of the way the "stop and frisk" mentality is extending throughout American life, and of the cumulative effect of our two open-ended wars: the War on Terror and the War on Drugs.

    Over to Mr. Blackburn. This is his account, with clarifying remarks about aviation terms inserted in brackets [like this] where useful.
    The following is an account of Three IFR flights from KSEE to L35 for fuel then to KBFE for more fuel then the destination KMQY.  [An IFR flight is under Instrument Flight Rules. The significant point here is that for IFR flights the FAA knows the name of the pilot; the details and home base of the plane; and every inch of the route it will take across the country. Most airports in the U.S. officially have "K" before their airport names -- KLAX, KJFK, etc. KSEE is Gillespie field, in San Diego; KBFE is Terry County Airport in Brownfield, Texas, south of Lubbock, where Blackburn stopped for gas. His destination was KMQY, Smyrna airport in Tennessee. The other airport is L35, in Big Bear Lake, California, where he also got gas. I won't go into why some smaller airports don't start with "K."]

    I departed at 5AM on October 21st 2010 from KSEE. It was IFR, with poor visibility, to Big Bear CA, L35, for fuel and further flight planning. The weather was changing from mid- Texas to the north [and Blackburn had to adjust his planned route]. The route was also IFR more or less direct from L35 to Brownfield Texas and was conducted at Flight Level 270. [Approximately 27,000 feet] It was without a doubt a good fast flight at 300+ Knots [usually there is a tailwind for planes headed west to east].

    The flight was planned for training purposes in the MU2 and for recurrent training to satisfy the requirements necessary to fly the MU2. [The piloting world has both regulatory and insurance-related requirements for frequent recurrent training. I was in fact doing some of that today in my Cirrus SR-22.]

    The weather was down to 2,500 feet upon arrival to KBFE for fuel. [That is, the clouds were 2,500 feet above ground level as he came in for a landing. In pilot-world, "weather" often means "bad weather," as in "we ran into some weather."] The airport manager at KBFE,  whose name was XX, came to assist me with fuel.  He noticed the one of the tires was low and provided me a bottle of nitrogen to fill it up. We had a length discussion [about some mutual friends, including some who had come to tragic ends.] We had a long talk about that and shook our heads with what a small world it was. 

    As I was returning the bottle in his shop the phone rang, the recorder picked it up and the manager answered.  I could hear the entire conversation.  The gentleman identified himself as "Homeland Security" and asked if a Mitsubishi was taking on fuel and XX said yes asked if he wanted to talk to me.  The caller said NO and asked if I could hear him and XX said no, as he did not know I was listening.  The caller said I will call you right back see if you can delay his departure and hung up. 

    As I entered the shop I asked him if that call was about me and he said "Well sort of".  I told him I heard the call on his recorder and that I was going to depart now.  I filed an IFR flight plan and went direct to KMQY, in Smyrna Tennessee.  I landed and parked next to the National Guard after asking permission. [Smaller airports often have a variety of craft -- private airplanes, police helicopters, National Guard, etc, and you get local guidance on where to park.]

    As I walked down the street to the office of the Mitsubishi Flight School, the airport security stopped me and asked if I just arrived in the MU2. I said yes.  He parked his car and said let's walk back to your aircraft.  He would not answer any questions. Just, let's get to your aircraft. 

    As we walked to where the plane was parked,  he said I will need your identification, drivers license, Pilots License, Medical, aircraft registration and any other documents relating to the operation of this aircraft.  In the distance I noticed a string of 5 or 6 cars with Blue Flashing lights.  I asked if those cars were coming for my benefit and he repeated the demands for the documents and watched as I gathered them from the aircraft.  I had everything  arranged as the flight school was also going to need to see all of the same information before we started school. 

    The 5 or 6 cars arrived and the gentleman immediately asked where the other two passengers went.  I said I had no other passengers as I was here to attend [flight training school].  He said several times that he wanted me to tell him who the other two persons were and I said there were none. 

    He then asked If I was carrying a large sum of money and I said well I guess.  I reached into my pocked took the wallet out and counted out $300 which was more then I usually carry with me.  He said he was looking for a large sum.  I said like what and he said well like $250,000. 

    I said NO I no longer carry that type of money because my wife would spend it.  He found no humor in this.  He asked why I did not stop when I crossed the Border.  I answered that I came from Brownfield, Texas, and from California before that.  All he had to do was look at my frequencies on my knee board and or look into my flight on Flight Aware as it was all IFR. [The pilot is saying (a) that the list of radio frequencies, for the air-traffic controllers he had been talking to through the flight, would show a sequence from California through Texas to Tennesee; and (b) that the radar tracks kept on FlightAware would also show his route.]

    To this he answered "We will do this our way". I said again I was attending school for the recurrent training.  He said nothing to that and then requested access to the aircraft.  I said for what and he said he had a need to search the aircraft and that in fact if I was not carrying drugs or large sums of money that I shouldn't have a problem with that.

    I asked him who all these people were and he informed me that he had three agencies investigating me  and they were Homeland Security, The FBI, and DEA.  Each team had their own dogs that would be going through the aircraft and that they would be as careful as they could.  I  gave permission for him to search the aircraft. 

    That is when he brought out 3 dogs and what appeared to be 3 separate teams of two people with each dog.  One team went in at a time and after they were done they came over to ask me questions. 

    At some point I was taken behind one of the vans and asked questions.  I asked to be in front of the vans as I wanted to see what if anything was going into the aircraft and they said no they wanted me right where I was.  They asked about other passengers, Mexico, drugs and money each time.  They would not allow me to make any calls and this went on till the wee hours in the morning for at least 4 hours.

    At this point I was shaking in my boots.  I was absolutely concerned they were going to plant something in my aircraft.  After they completed their questioning over and over again they finally  instructed me to move my aircraft to a different parking  area and that the security would escort me off the airport and that they were done.  

    And they were gone.  No contact information, no reports, no comments no nothing from them, nothing.  My phone was now dead and I knew that my wife was worried.  The security guard allowed me to use his battery as we had the same phone.  He also apologized for the awful interrogation and told me that they had called him earlier in the day and advised him to detain me with any means necessary until they arrived. He had no choice he had to do whatever they told him to do. 

    He knew I was there for school because he knew of the MU2 instruction that was provided at this airport.
     
    The next day I called my brother and asked him to look on flight aware for my flights.  He called back and said I have your flight from Ksee to L35 Big Bear and also the L35 flight to BFE Brown Field Texas.  The flights were direct and showed the correct flight levels.  The flight from BFE Brown Field however had been changed and showed a speed of 90 knots to 115 knots and never above 3,500 feet and all over the place south to the border and north for 60 miles and all over the place but never to MQY Smyrna Tennessee.  According to the Fight Aware I never arrived in Tennessee.
     
    I can speculate as to a couple of the details and the first if about the money.  I had a conversation with a business associate about a project I was working on that needed a capital investment of $250,000.00 and during the same conversation I mentioned after my flight to Tennessee that I was going to Mexico in my airplane down to Cabo.  I think it is possible, that someone was listening to my cell phone for some reason and that is what started something with homeland security....

    I really do not know if I am being treated any different than anyone else.... I will continue to fly and mostly IFR.  I will NOT be deterred from my passion of flight.

     In this case, unlike most of the previous ones, Blackburn was not held at gunpoint during the questioning and detention. But in all these cases we have many hours of detention, inspection by dogs, people left rattled and humiliated, and no indication of anything approaching probable cause. Further cases and commentary tomorrow. For now, just adding to the dossier. Sincere thanks to David Blackburn for going on the record here.

  • Annals of the Security State: 'Is Puerto Rico in America?'

    Stop-and-frisk, in the skies

    Here are two more, from people willing to go on the record under their real names. Previous entries here, here, here.

    My name is Ricky Gonzalez. I am a Captain on a Citation Jet for Dorado Aviation based out of San Juan, Puerto Rico. On Wednesday May 22nd, 2013 we were approach by three vehicles right after parking at the National Jets FBO at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport (FLL). The person in charge wore a safety vest " Sheriff" and said that they were working in conjunction with the DHS.

    I could go forever with the description about this. Among a few interesting points, the Law Enforcement Officer asked me if we had clear Customs to which I answered that we were coming from Puerto Rico, which is a US Territory and Commonwealth of the US. He could not understand at first. Also, one of the ladies at the FBO's front desk said that in her many years working for the same FBO she had never seen an operation like ours.

    To make this more interesting my boss the aircraft owner was onboard with his family. The officer asked if he could ask him a few questions. I went inside the FBO and when I walked back they were talking to him in the back of one of the SUVs.

    We stopped in FLL to pick up fuel on the way to TEB [Teterboro, NJ]. ..  They asked the same questions to my Boss, my Co- Captain and myself, almost as I they were looking for one of us to change the version....
     
    Is it becoming a new tactic from Law Enforcement?

    Now, from David Rivera, who runs a small business in San Diego:

    I too have had this happen twice to me. Both times leaving KSEE [Gillespie Field, on the east side of San Diego] and flying to KMKN [Comanche County airport in Texas, southwest of Fort Worth] in route to KFLL [Fort Lauderdale] Florida. KMKN at the time was the cheapest 100LL in the country and an easy choice in a southern route coast to coast low altitude flying. [100LL, also known as "Avgas," is the main fuel for piston-engine airplanes. It's a higher-octane, and higher-lead-content, version of normal gasoline. The aviation business is in the middle of a much-delayed shift to unleaded aviation fuel, but that hasn't happened yet. Flight planning software lets you know fuel costs at various airports, and there can be a huge difference. It's very common to pick a refueling site because it has cheaper fuel.]

    Both times I departed KSEE IFR and cancelled once in route VFR with flight plan filed. [IFR is Instrument Flight Rules, in which a pilot must follow Air Traffic Control's clearances for route, altitude, speed, etc. Even when the weather is good, pilots often choose to fly IFR to leave or enter a congested urban area with complicated airspace. That simplifies the process of knowing where they are and are not supposed to fly. Once away from the city, the pilot may "cancel IFR" and proceed on his own, under Visual Flight Rules, being careful to stay out of certain kinds of airspace.]

    When I landed [at Comanche County] to refuel, I was greeted by black Ford Expeditions and local and federal law enforcement officers. My story was similar to the others you have posted, except for one crazy difference. Before I agreed to the search I needed to use the bathroom and was allowed to leave the plane and the officers and walk to a bathroom located a significant distance from the officers. I thought wow they actually would let a drug suspect leave their sight? 

    I came back a few minutes later and they asked to me for my license and medical along with airplane documents. I got the BS line about the dog getting a "trigger". I allowed them to search the plane since I have nothing to hide and I was happy to be out of the plane after five hours. The officers were "very" knowledgeable about the FAR [FAA regulations] regarding pilots and planes. An hour later I was allowed to fuel the plane and depart. 

    When I returned home I told my friends at the SDPD [San Diego police] and a good friend of mine that is an FBI agent about the "ramp check". They said that there is no way officers will let you out of their sight if they suspect you of committing a crime. They knew I was on a flight plan intending to land at KMKN and they could track me on Flight Aware. This allowed them to be ready to document a search. Homeland Security has a huge budget to fund government agencies and the agencies have to justify the money. Both of my friends had Homeland Security give them funding for similar projects. I believe this will just continue until the money runs out!
    No more "analysis" at the moment. For now I am just rolling the stories out, and have asked federal authorities for comment. More on the way. (And, to put things in a larger Security-State perspective, consider this, via Michael Ham.)
  • Summarizing the Latest Security-State Post

    The TL;DR version of stop-and-frisk taking to the skies

    The immediately preceding post, another Annals of the Security State installment, is very long.


    Here is the TL;DR version, just for the record, for anyone who can't wade through the original.

    A pilot who was doing absolutely nothing wrong -- had broken no rule, had received no warning, was behaving exactly the way a motorist would on a regular highway or a boater might do on a lake -- landed at night in fully legal fashion at a small airport in Texas. And at that point his plane was surrounded by armed security forces who directed spotlights and strobe lights into his eyes and pointed their guns at his head. The situation was so threatening he thought he was being robbed by a drug gang. But these were the Feds.

    A sample:
    During my engine/turbo cool down period I was blinded from the front right and left with white lights. I just covered my eyes and sat there.... I figured at this point that I was being hijacked by drug dealers who were going to steal my plane....

    When they lowered their flashlights I could see they had long guns (one had a carbine and the other looked like a shotgun).... 

    Once I got the plane shut down I was ordered out of the plane with a shotgun pointed at my head and patted down.   It was pretty stressful. 

    This account is worth reading. And in the end, they determined, again, that he had done nothing wrong. 


    To be clear, I am not saying that the pilot population is being singled out for stop-and-frisk treatment. I am saying that this is another window into what the open-ended War on Terror and War on Drugs have wrought.
  • Annals of the Security State: The Airplane Stories Continue

    "I figured at this point that I was being hijacked by drug dealers who were going to steal my plane." But no, it was the Feds.

    Silversteinthumb.jpg

    For previous installments in this series, please see the stories of Gabriel Silverstein (right), Larry Gaines and Clay Phillips, and a Cirrus pilot who doesn't want to be identified.

    Our next installment comes from another pilot who has asked me to protect his name and particulars because he is concerned about retribution. The first episode he describes, from Wyoming, was humiliating and annoying; the second, from Texas, sounds potentially dangerous and certainly quite frightening.

    One point of context, which I'll pick up at the end. Many of today's security-state episodes arise from the open-ended "war on terror." Many others arise from the even more open-ended "war on drugs." Some appear to be caused by both at once, or a morphing of one into the other. Follow along with the cases, then a summary-for-now at the end:

    'When they lowered their flashlights, I could see they had long guns.' A reader/pilot reports:

    I've just finished reading your recent article "Annals of the Security State: More Airplane Stories" and it sounded oh so familiar.  I experienced almost an identical situation in flying from CA to TX.  It is hard to relate the stress, anxiety, adrenaline, concern and anger that is experienced during one of these encounters with our new federal government.

    If you find it useful to share this story please delete my name and [other details] as my family has decided (after consultation with legal advisers) that we want no more attention from our wonderful federal protectors.  From what we have learned, they have lists, there is no one you can contact to get off the list and because they assaulted my plane and searched it for drugs, it and I are now tagged with a "drug ID number" and I must expect to be taken out of my airplane at gunpoint every time I land.... 

    1. Wyoming, summer 2012. [From a letter to an aviation-world authority.] I recently had a very disturbing experience that I wanted to share with you. I'm a new pilot, I've owned a [single-engine, turbocharged Cessna] for a little over a year and am loving flying. It's been 14 months and I've racked up over 400 hours [JF note: that's quite a lot]...did I mention I love to fly?

    The people I've met in the flying community have been uniformly helpful and friendly. That includes the folks at all the various FBOs [Fixed Base Operators -- essentially the service stations at small airports], so I was a bit surprised when I arrived at an FBO at a small Wyoming town last month and instead of the usual pleasant greeting the reception was a bit hostile. I found out why about a half hour later, after I'd put in my order for fuel, car rental, and wipe down and hangar storage for my plane. The manager said he'd gotten a call from Homeland Security (DHS) informing them that I was flying in shortly and to check out the plane and keep watch on me because I was "suspected of smuggling drugs."

    At first I thought he was kidding me, or that one of my buddies had put him up to it - I'm an Army vet with lots of active duty military and law enforcement friends - and I wouldn't put it past one of them to play an evil joke like that on me, but it turned out he was serious. He said he decided to tell me because it was so obviously not true, once he got a look at me and at my plane.

    I guess it may be true that my flying habits aren't "typical", whatever that is, but I didn't know that my decision to travel about the country in my own plane would result in Homeland Security monitoring my movements using the FAA ATC [air traffic control] system in real time and tracking me down. But it appears that DHS is calling up FBOs and making allegations that I'm a criminal based solely on my new found love of flying about the country. Because that's all it could be based on, anyone who had taken the slightest effort to look into my life would have known I have nothing to do with drugs or any other criminal activity.

    I'm told by friends who should know that all this came about simply because I fly VFR (I'm not instrument-rated yet), and I often take advantage of ATC's flight following services when crossing the Sierras or Rockies. [Flying VFR, or by Visual Flight Rules, means that pilots find their own routes from place to place in clear weather and don't have to talk to air traffic controllers as long as they stay out of certain kinds of airspace.]

    I'm not sure how much Homeland Security uses ATC's databases to track the activities of general aviation pilots and planes, or asks FBOs to engage in what is basically domestic spying on its behalf, but I thought you and other GA [general aviation] pilots might be interested to hear about what happened to me.

    2. Utah, fall 2012
    [From the same reader's letter to an aviation authority:] I departed [a city in California] on the night of November XX in order beat an incoming Pacific storm.  I stopped for the night in Cedar City, UT and then continued on to Texas the following day.  I flew mostly direct to Lubbock, TX where I stopped for fuel and then on to my destination in Corsicana, TX (just south of Dallas) a municipal airport south of town.  I landed an hour or so after dark.  I had called and made arrangements with the airport manager that morning before departing UT.

    While on final approach to the airport another aircraft came on the frequency and basically blocked the frequency with banter and babble.  Approximately 1 minute after I landed a twin engine aircraft landed and taxied near where I was in the process of shutting down my aircraft. 

    During my engine/turbo cool down period I was blinded from the front right and left with white lights. I just covered my eyes and sat there. There was no one else at the airport so I figured these people had come from the airplane that landed behind me.  I figured at this point that I was being hijacked by drug dealers who were going to steal my plane.  My sidearm was in my luggage in the back seat and I figured I wouldn't be able to get to it.

    I tried to signal using hand gestures that I needed two minutes to cool down the engine/turbo, but I was then hit with strobe lights.  At this point I couldn't even make out the instruments on my panel so I returned the light with my own flashlight in an attempt to get them to stop blinding me.  Once they lowered their lights I was able to shutdown the plane. When they lowered their flashlights I could see they had long guns (one had a carbine and the other looked like a shotgun).  I did notice that one one of them had what looked like a shield on their jacket so I was hopeful that they were some form of law enforcement and not hijackers. The team looked to be composed of 5 or six men.

    Once I got the plane shut down I was ordered out of the plane with a shotgun pointed at my head and patted down.   It was pretty stressful. I was told they were conducting "a standard FAA ramp check."  My ID, pilot's license, aircraft registration, medical, and airworthiness documents were demanded.  I provided all the documentation.

    They continuously requested to search my aircraft and demanded to know where I was coming from and why I was in Corsicana.  After what seemed like 20 or 30 minutes I asked what I had done wrong and when I could leave. Finally I was given my documents back and told "I was free to go."

    Once I secured my plane and loaded my luggage into a car I had arranged for from the airport, a local law enforcement officer arrived with what they referred to as a "drug dog."  I was told that they were going to walk the dog around my plane.  There dog was clearly trained to indicate for drugs when the handler wanted the dog to do so.  And, so, the dog indicated on the pilot's door and the baggage compartment door. 

    The plane was searched without my authorization and against my will.  Obviously nothing was found.  I was then told that all my bags would be taken out of the car and the dog was going to inspect them.  I told them I didn't consent to that and they said they didn't care and continued to go in the car and remove all the bags and place them in the parking lot.  The dog walked around them and did nothing.  I was told I was free to go again.

    After a couple of hours I was released and I headed for my hotel -- never to hear from them again, not that I really want to.  Obviously everything was in order and I was very thankful of that as these guys were very scary.  I've been spending some time trying to figure out how to make sure this doesn't happen again, but I'm not coming up with any real solutions.

    A few thoughts:
    1.  The initial contact was dangerous and unprofessional.  These idiots are going to get themselves or someone else injured or killed.
    2.  No identification was given nor was an announcement made over the common frequency, I had no way of knowing these were government agents, thank god my gun was packed away.
    3.  The only identification that was offered was CBP letters on one or more of the agents jackets.  No badges or identifications were presented...only firearms.

    A European view. A reader combines the war-on-drugs and war-on-terror themes:

    I write to you from Holland. Recently our national police started a similar harassment on pilots. If you ask me why I can suggest the following reason.

    Security services all over the world have been very successful in repressing terrorism done by larger groups. They could do this by attacking the infrastructure necessary for the organization of these large scale attacks. Tapping into phone and e-mail, tracking financial trails and so on.The result is that terrorism has gone back to small operations done by small groups of people (Boston, London).

    The result is also that the huge organizations like DHS suddenly hear and see nothing anymore. So they start to look for patterns done by profilers. Also they want their people to be in the alert status all the time because they have no clues anymore.

    All of a sudden private pilots become a lovely soft target. They use the privileges of their license in the most rigorously controlled environment ever created by man. Do they focus their attention into motor gangs, a category much more likely to yield criminal results? No of course not. That would end in heavy gun battles all around the country.Imagine that you would like to make a trip on your motor bike and are allowed to ride only on certain times in the day due to noise restrictions, that you are obliged to have a tracking device on your bike the allow authorities to constantly monitor where you go and how fast, where you stop and how long. That you would have to file your itinerary one hour before departure and report upon arrival.You would find that absurd and society would not allow it.

    But that is exactly what private pilots are subjected to. These people are obsessed by rules and regulations and are the most hyper obedient citizens you will find. So no resistance expected, soft targets and easy practice targets to keep your swollen bureaucracy going. In one of your stories there are a business jet ($3000/hr) a King air ($1200/hour) and a small army busy for three hours. That is an easy way to spend your budget. And the budget has to be spent at the end of the year. So the good news is that DHS was successful in fighting terrorism, the bad news is that you now live in a police state.

    Similarly, from a reader in the US:

    I might suggest that it's not the "Security" state, but the Drug War state. Which are slightly different things. The latter is the bigger problem than the former, in my opinion.

    And I think as the security state comes under increasing "why did you exist?" pressures, it falls back on drug enforcement. Because that's an endless hole of discretion, for which astonishing infrastructure costs can be justified. Just look at the unbelievable hardware put in use in this episode. 

    And I really appreciate the extrapolation part you discussed at the end. It's important for all of us to "internalize" what this means on the ground for all of us, as I noted yesterday. This could have been a Jay Z song.

    And, from north of the border, a Canadian view:

    Having read your stories about random checks on aircraft pilots, including a glider pilot, I thought that the time may have come to propose a general stand down. Your society seems to have entered a spiral in which more intrusive policing leads to a desire for greater private possession of firearms, and greater resistance to common-sense measures to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals or mentally unstable persons, while police react to the number of firearms in the population with more body armour, more "Terry stops", and a more intrusive and dominance-focused approach to policing.

    A stand down would mean that both individual members of the public, and the public bodies dedicated to law enforcement, should give up some power. On the individual level, that means gun safety: accepting that not all people have the maturity or the mental stability to handle firearms, and accepting necessary restrictions to keep those weapons out of their hands. On the level of law enforcement agencies, it means reducing intrusions on the lives of innocent people. On the level of government, it means reducing penalties and enforcement efforts for consensual crimes and dialing back programs designed to provide police with body and vehicle armour and high powered weapons.

    A few common-sense confidence building measures could level out a process that seems set, to use an aviation metaphor, to turn into a graveyard spiral.

    The apotheosis of the Border Patrol. An American reader refers to a previous message about the Border Patrol's authority to stop and search without a warrant:

    I am not a lawyer, but when I see this:

    "As a former US Border Patrol Agent, and a pilot and aircraft owner I feel for the man who was searched but a border patrol agent is fully authorized by the Government to "board and search any Vehicle, Boat, Aircraft, dog sled, ect.. without a warrant or probable cause.
    The DEA and other law enforcement agencies do not have the authority to "board and search" and that is why the Border Patrol was there."

    I have to wonder by what nebulous authority the Border Patrol can, with legal justification, search a flight originating within the United States (Calaveras County Airport) and flying to an airport in Oklahoma.  Neither airport is international.  Neither airport is particularly close to an international border.  The pilot did not exit US airspace during his flight.

    What part of either airport, what part of the flight, what action by the pilot could allow the BP to consider Cordell Municipal Airport in Oklahoma to be functionally equivalent to the border?
    These actions strike me, on their face, as an abuse of power.

    And, to wrap things up right now, I have received many messages from fellow pilots who (unlike me) are politically very conservative, and who are convinced that what we're seeing is an Obama-era "war on the right wing." I don't believe that -- remember, the two main open-ended "wars" are fully bipartisan -- but offer this exchange as an illustration. It starts with a message from a reader in South Dakota:

    Every time I travel abroad I am taken aside and asked a whole lot of questions that most of these highly irate pilots would ever be asked because I am dark-haired, dark-eyed woman who was born in Greece and is a naturalized citizen.  (NOTE:  I was naturalized when I was three years old; I was an orphan, adopted to this country.)  Considering what I go through in order to travel, and have for years, I have no sympathy at all for them and their encounters with "jack-booted thugs".  In fact, I find it ironic that they have discovered that the war on drugs and the war on terrorism applies even to them - nice, white, middle to upper-class, middle-aged folks - and that the Patriot Act and its ilk might have serious repercussions for all of us.

    Thank you for pointing out that "as a group they're not used to being on the wrong side of routine hassles by the police. Therefore, I concluded, if they (we) are now being viewed with routine suspicion, you can imagine circumstances for people in the "driving while black" category."  And for traveling while looking foreign. 

    I wrote back saying that I understood her "welcome to my world" point, but that I very much disagreed with her saying that she had "no sympathy at all" for other people affected by the same treatment. She responded thus:

    I will amend my statement:  I do have sympathy for anyone subject to harassment.  Until they launch into conspiracy theories and "jack-booted thug" statements, at which point I try (if they're sitting next to me) to explain the way things work in the real world. 

    Sadly, what I often hear is "well of course they're being careful about THOSE people [blacks, Muslims, Native Americans, etc.], but I was doing nothing wrong!"  And they stick to it like glue... 

    What I would really like is for those who do experience such harassment - rather than raise up conspiracy theories or complain endlessly about how badly they have been treated - to recognize that they have just been inducted into the world that thousands, hundreds of thousands, of American citizens undergo every day, and which they have acquiesced, approved, participated in it.  And feel just a little bit ashamed of themselves...  And decide that if it isn't fair for them, it isn't fair for anybody, including the scary black guy or Muslim woman or the 60-year old Greek born woman trying to get to Ireland...  :)

    On these closing points I agree. This is a little sample of the incoming flow. More as soon as I can manage.

  • For Memorial Day, Another 'End the War on Terror' Speech

    A message I have been waiting to hear.

    There's a connection between two themes I've been hitting hard recently: the surprising extension of "stop and frisk" inspections into the general-aviation world, and Barack Obama's announcement that the time had come formally to end the "war on terror."

    The connection is that events in the first category -- overreach of the security state, at home and abroad -- are reflections of the second development: the 11-plus years of "permanent emergency" in America's rhetoric and laws about terrorist threats. In this war like many previous ones, "normal" Constitutional constraints and checks-and-balances were suspended. But all previous wars ended. Until this week, no president or serious presidential contender had argued that, for the health of America's democracy, it was time to end this one too. 

    In his speech this week, Obama quoted James Madison to the same effect: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." Seven years ago, in the issue shown below, I tried to imagine what a future speech like Obama's would sound like. This was its [imagined] peroration:

    DeclaringVictory.jpg"My fellow Americans, we have achieved something almost no one thought possible five years ago. The nation did not suffer the quick follow-up attacks so many people feared and expected. Our troops found the people who were responsible for the worst attack ever on our soil. We killed many, we captured more, and we placed their leaders in a position where they could not direct the next despicable attack on our people--and where the conscience of the world's people, of whatever faith, has turned against them for their barbarism. They have been a shame to their own great faith, and to all other historic standards of decency.

    "Achieving this victory does not mean the end of threats. Life is never free of dangers. I wish I could tell you that no American will ever again be killed or wounded by a terrorist--and that no other person on this earth will be either. But I cannot say that, and you could not believe me if I did. Life brings risk--especially life in an open society, like the one that people of this land have sacrificed for centuries to create.

    "We have achieved a great victory, and for that we can give thanks--above all to our troops. We will be at our best if we do not let fear paralyze or obsess us. We will be at our best if we instead optimistically and enthusiastically begin the next chapter in our nation's growth. We will deal with the struggles of our time. These include coping with terrorism, but also recognizing the huge shifts in power and resulting possibilities in Asia, in Latin America, in many other parts of the world. We will recognize the challenges of including the people left behind in the process of global development--people in the Middle East, in Africa, even in developed countries like our own. The world's scientists have never before had so much to offer, so fast--and humanity has never needed their discoveries more than we do now, to preserve the world's environment, to develop new sources of energy, to improve the quality of people's lives in every corner of the globe, to contain the threats that modern weaponry can put into the hands of individuals or small groups.

    "The great organizing challenge of our time includes coping with the threat of bombings and with the political extremism that lies behind it. That is one part of this era's duty. But it is not the entirety. History will judge us on our ability to deal with the full range of this era's challenges--and opportunities. With quiet pride, we recognize the victory we have won. And with the determination that has marked us through our nation's history, we continue the pursuit of our American mission, undeterred by the perils that we will face." [End of imagined speech. Note: no 'God Bless America' ending.]

    Different leaders will choose different words. But the message--of realism, of courage, and of optimism despite life's difficulties--is one we need to hear.

    The different leader of 2013 did indeed choose different words. But the essence of his message was one I have been waiting for a long time to hear.
    __
    In-house note: That September 2006 issue, with its cover story rashly announcing "We Win," was the first one fully under James Bennet's control after he arrived as editor. By the time he got here I had already begun work on this "declare victory" article.

    It was a very gutsy choice for him to stick with that story, and that claim, as the cover of one of his early issues. What if some big bomb went off somewhere just before or after the issue appeared? By the strict logic of the story, that "shouldn't" matter. In the story I took great pains to explain, quoting many historians and experts in the long arc of terrorism, that attacks probably would continue, as other disasters and misfortunes do. Nonetheless (I said) we shouldn't let that blind us to the damage done by an open-ended state of war. That's fine as far as logic goes -- but in the real, trans-logical world of emotion and buzz, we unavoidably would have looked bad, "Dewey Beats Truman"-style. The risk was all the greater with a new editor's first issue, and even more so when the writer (me) had moved to China as soon as the article was done but before it had appeared. I have always been grateful for the guts of James Bennet's choice to go ahead. 


    It may seem the exact opposite of gutsy to compliment one's own editor for promoting one's own article; I recognize that. But because so many people assume the worst about the choices journalists make, I thought it was worth letting people outside our office know about this one.
  • Annals of the Security State: Even More Airplane Stories

    One more reason why it matters that the open-ended "war on terror" come to a close. Plus the "war on drugs."


    130523searches.jpg


    Over the past few days I've relayed several stories that amount to the familiar police force stop-and-frisk policy being extended from the sidewalk to the skies. The case of Gabriel Silverstein (originally told by AOPA) is here. Those of Larry Gaines and Clay Phillips are here. This photo, apparently of a real interdiction, is via AOPA.

    Now pilots and others respond, plus another first-hand story, from another pilot who for no reason found his plane surrounded by police. 

    1) Politics. I pointed out earlier that as a group general-aviation pilots are older, whiter, more politically conservative, and more likely to have a military background than the population at large. While they're not all rich, they're all committed to an expensive pastime/ passion/avocation. So as a group they're not used to being on the wrong side of routine hassles by the police. Therefore, I concluded, if they (we) are now being viewed with routine suspicion, you can imagine circumstances for people in the "driving while black" category.

    A reader notes one comment from one pilot who was hassled -- "I'm a retired US Navy officer, have held security clearances during my entire time in the Navy... and yet something I did, or didn't do attracted this jack-boot fascist attention from our out-of-control government." The reader adds:
    The stories you have published lately about the harassment of private pilots are truly disturbing.  There is one point you made that I suspect is stirring up some dust -- "So if the security state is leaning heavily on them, you can extrapolate to other groups."  I think your take on this is correct -- if older white guys are being harassed, just imagine what is happening to other folks.

    However, the "jack booted fascists" comment made me think that a lot of these folks feel that they are being targeted specifically because they are older white conservatives.  This perception has been reinforced by the recent IRS hullaballoo of course.  But the general sentiment has been going on for a long time -- fueled by all the right-wing media and repeated in their echo chambers. 

    I'm reasonably confident that one or two of your correspondents on the airplane stories have said something in the past in favor of "stop and frisk" type laws, property seizure in suspected drug crimes, etc.  It is a reminder for all of us that freedom is for everybody, not just us and those who look like us...
    I agree with this reader's interpretation, and don't agree with some of my fellow pilots who feel that they're being persecuted as an extension of the IRS/Tea Party imbroglio. I will bet anybody any amount that this is the security-state/ stop-and-frisk reflex extended in a new direction, rather than the (comparatively tamer) workings of partisan politics.


    2) Search and seizure. From a lawyer in Los Angeles:
    I'd love seem these guys at Homeland Security held accountable for what seems to be violation of Terry v. Ohio and other Supreme Court case law that requires more than what they have to detain the pilots and their aircraft.

    3) We didn't go to Russia, but... From a friend I've known for decades in the defense-policy world:
    Unf_ _ _ ing believable. I hope you pursue this.

    Here is a quote from a friend I receive recently:

    "I know I didn't move to Russia but did Putin move here?"

    So I have suggestion: why don't you come up with a DHS Rapid Response Check List for Citizen's Rights so future pilots (and others) know the limits of what they can and cannot do.
    Many people I know in the piloting world are actually thinking about this latter step.


    4) The Soft Paws Angle. Another reader writes:
    I read with growing fury your recent update recounting the experience of Larry Gaines.

    I don't have much to add, but I may be able to shed one tiny sliver of light on an insignificant aspect of the article.  There's a product called "Soft Paws" -- these are blunt plastic covers for animal claws (dogs & cats), which are used to keep them from scratching up surfaces (and owners, in the case of cats!).  That's probably what the canine agent meant when he said that his dog had "soft paws."  I still wouldn't be comfortable letting the dog onto the wing of my airplane, though.

    I have a handy wallet card that the ACLU produced concerning my rights as a citizen when stopped by law enforcement.  It seems to me that ACLU and AOPA may need to combine their efforts to create a similar one for pilots.  I will write to AOPA to suggest that they create one.
    The idea of the ACLU collaborating with the AOPA, the generally conservative Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, epitomizes a changing political era. Or maybe a trans-partisan queasiness about the security state.


    5) What the Border Patrol can do. A person with experience writes:
    As a former US Border Patrol Agent, and a pilot and aircraft owner I feel for the man who was searched but a border patrol agent is fully authorized by the Government to "board and search any Vehicle, Boat, Aircraft, dog sled, ect.. without a warrant or probable cause.
     
    The DEA and other law enforcement agencies do not have the authority to "board and search" and that is why the Border Patrol was there.

    6) And one more story. From a person who, like me, flies a Cirrus SR-22 airplane:
    DHSTankthumb.jpg
    I had an experience that was just like a few of those you mentioned in your article. Flying a Cirrus SR22 from Santa Monica to KJWN in Nashville [a small airport, on the west side of town] in April, 2009. Had a quick refuel in Amarillo. Met by about ten officers of various agencies in Nashville. The dog handler lied and said he "triggered" on my baggage door. I told him to save it as I already gave permission to search the plane. I won't do that again. The officers were courteous and they said their orders came from the "big boys".

    [Now, the more detailed tick-tock account:]

    Date  - April, 2009
    Plane - SR22
    Pilot - 40-sometime white-male pilot, flying alone
    Route - Two leg flight from SMO-AMA [Santa Monica to Amarillo], AMA-JWN [and on to Nashville]. First leg was IFR, second leg VFR (even though I had an IFR on file for that leg - it was good weather and I enjoy VFR flight across our wonderful country.) [VFR is Visual Flight Rules, for good-weather / good-visibility conditions in which pilots can choose their own route and don't need to check with controllers as long as they stay out of certain kinds of airspace. IFR is Instrument Flight Rules, for bad weather/bad visibility or other circumstances in which pilots want controllers to be responsible for their routing, separation from other airplanes, etc. On IFR flights pilots are expected to follow controllers' instructions about heading, altitude, speed, etc.]

    I did "get" flight following on the second leg. ["Flight following" is a courtesy service on VFR flights, in which controllers alert pilots to potential traffic conflicts or other problems. In return the pilot has to stay in touch with the controllers, rather than just cruising along on his own.] At the time I thought this was weird because when I left AMA [Amarillo], they told me to contact departure. Departure gave me a squawk and "forced" flight following on me. [At larger airports with control towers, after the plane leaves the immediate area control will pass to "departure" controllers. A squawk is a specific code for a transponder, which lets air traffic control identify your plane on radar.] I say that in quotes because I know I was PIC [Pilot in Command, with ultimate authority to accept or reject requests] but I never requested it and they gave it to me. (Later they told me they were tracking me across the country so I guess this is why it was "forced" on me). 

    This is a route I have flown many times in the Cirrus, a Cessna 182, and other aircraft. I departed early morning SMO [Santa Monica] and landed in the evening JWN [near Nashville. As a side editorial note: Imagine just being able to do this, flying yourself from LA to Tennessee, at your own schedule, in a day.]

    Upon landing and taxiing to the FBO [Fixed Base Operator, essentially the small-airport office] at JWN:

    After exiting and securing the aircraft, I quickly walked to the bathroom which was across the lobby inside the FBO (long flight leg combined with small bladder). Going to the bathroom, I saw two average looking guys hanging out in the lobby. I didn't think anything of it and proceeded to the restroom. After exiting the restroom (and in front of FBO personnel) the two males flashed badges and asked if they could talk to me. I do seem to recall that one of the badges was local sheriff dept but can't remember what the other guy's affiliation was.
    I consented to the questioning (another mistake I won't repeat).

    They asked me about my route of flight first. They asked why I went out of my way and landed in Amarillo. I told them that if they looked at the great-circle route line between Santa Monica and Nashville, they would discover that it was only about 20 nautical miles or so out of the way on a 1500 nautical mile trip. So I considered it a convenient place to stop since Amarillo airport is also one of the bigger ones around for my refueling stop.

    Next question was "Can I look through your flight bag?". I said sure and he went and looked at my charts, radios, and satellite phone. He asked why I had a satellite phone. I told him it was to make phone calls in-flight, pickup clearances when necessary, and in a forced landing if required.

    After this "chat-up", they asked me to walk to my plane on the ramp with them. When we exited the FBO to walk to the ramp, I looked at my plane that was 200 feet away and was surprised to see it surrounded by many law enforcement vehicles in a circle around the plane with their lights shining on the it. At this time, there were now about ten law enforcement officers there. Various agencies I believe. They told me that this "command" to check me out came from the "Big Boys". I didn't know who they meant at the time but later figured it was possibly the AMOC (Air Marine Operation Center) out of Riverside, CA and maybe some DHS/CBP involvement.)

    Then they asked to search my plane and I consented. The reason I consented to the search is I had worked with federal law enforcement agencies previously in a professional manner and was comfortable and trusting of them. Looking back I was probably more cooperative than I should have been (per my lawyers) but I had no reason to doubt their integrity at that time.

    So about a minute after I consented to the search with one officer, another officer/dog-handler with his dog approached me and gave me a paragraph about how his dog "triggered" on my baggage door for drugs. By the monotone delivery, I could tell that this was a memorized speech he had given many times. I politely told him that he didn't have to go on with the speech since I had already consented to the search.

    At this moment, I switched from comfortable to scared as I was 99.9% sure this dog triggered on command and I felt this part of the detainment was definitely manufactured. I also sensed multiple agencies working at the same time because they were not completely coordinated in their search. This was evidenced by the fact that the dog handler did not know I already gave consent to the search and was trying to get my consent.

    While searching the plane, they removed all loose items from the plane (cooler, oxygen bottles, bags, etc), piled them on the ramp, and looked through them. When they were done, I was allowed to put the items back in the plane. The whole event lasted from one to two hours. I have a picture somewhere that I secretly took with all the cars and officers around the plane. I am trying to find it.

    In closing I must add that the officers were courteous and I feel they were being directed to do what they did by Feds. I think the problem with these shakedowns needs to be solved at their superiors. It was harassing and embarrassing event for me. I fly into that FBO frequently and now feel that some of them look at me like a drug runner. I also think that local law enforcement resources are wasted on shaking down innocent citizens.

    On a side note, I have since done research on drug-dogs/triggering and found out that when done on a highway stop, the dog will frequently trigger outside of the view of the dash-cam. Because of this, the interpretation of the triggering is solely up to the handler and his recollection.
    For the record, as with the previous accounts this is one more story of a pilot who was:
    • doing absolutely nothing wrong;
    • breaking no law, guidance, or suggestion formal or informal; and yet
    • was detained for an extended period, subjected to an intrusive search, and otherwise treated as a suspect in a process that yielded no incriminating material nor anything even vaguely suspicious.
    Our open-ended "wars" -- on "terrorism," on drugs -- have brought us to this point. More soon.
  • Annals of the Security State: More Airplane Stories

    "My dad fought a war so this can never happen in America. I will not dishonor my father's memory by giving up what he fought for. No, sir. With all due respect, I will not consent to a search without a proper warrant."

    DHSTank.jpg

    Over the weekend I related the story of Gabriel Silverstein, a businessman and pilot who for no apparent reason was subjected to a two-hour detention and invasive search by Homeland Security officials as he traveled across the country in his small plane. The picture above is not from that episode; it's an official DHS photo of its emergency-response agents being trained.

    Below and after the jump are two additional stories of the same sort. The first is a long account from Larry Gaines, a small-plane pilot from California who had a similar episode last year. The story is long and detailed, and will be riveting for those in the aviation world. The summary for general readers is this.
    • A private pilot set out from an airport in the Sierra foothills of California, headed to Oklahoma; 
    • He made the trip "VFR" -- under visual flight rules, choosing his own path and knowing that he did not need to check in with air-traffic controllers as long as he stayed out of certain kinds of airspace (around big airports, in military zones, or subject to other restrictions).
    • He eventually landed at a tiny little airport in rural Oklahoma, where a friend met him and took him home for dinner. 
    • The pilot realized that he had dropped his eyeglass case at the airport and went back to retrieve it.
    • At which point all hell broke loose, as he describes in detail. In short, local, county, and federal enforcement agents were there to inspect him and his plane -- and when he asked why, they said that his "suspicious" profile was "flight west to east, from California."
    Again to put this in perspective for people outside the airplane world, a person who was doing absolutely nothing illegal and was embarked on a perfectly normal trip from place to place, became the object of an extensive and costly manhunt -- on grounds of general "suspicion." As he says at the end of his account (taken from an email to a friend):
    The whole episode lasted about 2 hours.  While the officers who questioned me were not overtly or personally threatening, the situation was intimidating and threatening.  I was never told details of the "profile", so I don't know how to prevent this from happening again, aside from talking to federal employees at all times while flying.  I am concerned that DEA and DHS now have files on me.  This distresses me GREATLY.  I am equally concerned that my plane's tail number is now suspicious in the eyes of law enforcement....

    [He adds this caveat in a follow up note:] Although my adrenaline gets going when I think about this whole mess, and I can read the US Constitution, I have ENORMOUS respect for the rule of law and for the men and women who put their asses in harm's way to help assure my safety.  That includes local, state, & federal law enforcement agents, as well as our military.  The people who should answer for this crap are the cowardly bureaucrats who sent all those men, vehicles, airplanes, dogs, and guns out there - not the men dispatched to the scene.

    His full account after the jump. After that is the second case, from Clay Phillips, a retired Navy officer who had a similar experience.

    To say it again: I am not contending that the aviation world is being inordinately picked-upon. Overall it is a privileged part of society -- and demographically it skews toward older white males who are politically conservative, have money, and often have military experience. Ie, these are people who are not generally the object of police profiling for terrorist or other criminal tendencies. So if the security state is leaning heavily on them, you can extrapolate to other groups. The stories begin below.

    ____
    Here is the first story. Explanations of aviation terms provided in brackets, [like this]:
    I'm Larry Gaines; my airplane is a J35 Bonanza [a popular single-engine plane].
     
    I took off from KCPU, Calaveras County airport in San Andreas, CA about 9:00 AM local (1600 Z) Tuesday, July 17, 2012.  1200 squawk.  [1200 is the code put in the transponder, as a "squawk," to indicate to air-traffic controllers following the flight on radar that the pilot is flying under Visual Flight Rules. This requires clear visibility, and it puts the obligation on the pilot to avoid hitting other planes or running into obstacles. A VFR pilot does not have to talk with controllers, as long as the plane stays out of certain controlled air space. Z is "Zulu time," aka Universal Time or Greenwich time.] Route was direct TPH VOR (Tonopah, NV), to stay north of Tonopah Test Range restricted airspace, then direct F36 (Cordell Municipal Airport, Cordell, OK).  [The pilot plotted the course by certain navigation waypoints, and was careful to stay out of a military-airspace zone.] Landed F36 about 6:30 PM local (2330 Z).  Total flight duration, engine start to engine shut down was 7:24.
     
    My friend XX met me at the airport and we drove to his home.
     
    I dropped my eyeglasses case on the ramp, so we returned to the airport a little before 7:00 PM local.  As we drove onto the airport access road, there were 3 local law enforcement vehicles - 2 turned in ahead of us, 1 behind.  All three surrounded my airplane as we drove up.  I retrieved my glasses, then a Washita county sheriff began asking questions.  
     
    "Is this your airplane?"  "Yes."
     
    "Where did you fly in from?"  "Calaveras, California."
     
    "California?"  "Yes"
     
    Then I asked why he and the other officers and deputies were there.  At first he ignored my question, but eventually said my flight met "a certain profile", and that the Department of Homeland Security asked his office to send a deputy out to see if an airplane was on the ramp.  He said DHS wanted to talk to me.  I was afraid they thought I had violated a TFR. [A "Temporary Flight Restriction," which often includes the no-fly zones that surround a president as he moves around the country.] I knew I had NOT.  Unless the president had somehow had dinner in Amarillo.
     
    I asked for the DHS telephone number.  He said I had to wait because they were flying in.  While we waited, the deputy said he was supposed to "check my documents."  I showed him how to conduct a proper ramp check, and produced pilot and aircraft documents.  I then respectfully let him know that he really did not have authority to conduct ramp checks, as that is within the sole purview of the FAA (which I believe is correct - I do realize pilots must produce pilot certificates when requested by local law enforcement officers, but I do not believe we are required to produce any other documents.)
     
    I asked about the "profile".  After asking again, he said the profile was a flight "from west to east, from California."
     
    I called my mother on my cell phone to let her know I had made it to Cordell and landed safely.  When I got out my phone, the deputy moved toward me and made it VERY CLEAR I was not to make any phone calls.  I told him who I was calling and why.  He let me call, but listened in to make sure I was, indeed, talking to my Mom and that I was not talking about this detention.
     
    We waited for the DHS aircraft.  2 black Suburbans drove up at some point during this time, plus more Cordell Police and Washita County Sheriffs.  All told, there were 3 police cars, 3 sheriff's cars, and 2 Suburbans with black windows from what I was later told was DEA.  The officers/agents in the Suburbans were dressed in what appeared to be riot gear - body armor and helmets, I believe.  They had shotguns and at least one German Shepherd dog.  One of the local sheriffs was definitely in full SWAT regalia.  It was over 100 degrees F.  I counted 20 officers, deputies, and agents.  Seven were dressed & equipped, literally, for armed conflict.  The entire scene was very intimidating, ominous, and foreboding to me.  I really was not in immediate fear of physical harm, but I was definitely scared that they thought I was some sort of horrible criminal, and that I would be treated as such.
     
    A large business jet arrived and circled overhead for the next 60-90 minutes.  A King Air 200 [a sizable twin-engine turboprop plane] arrived and landed.  2 Border Patrol agents got out.  I was "interviewed" again.  I was lied to about a couple things.  The BP agent who appeared to be senior, or in charge, said I had been tracked on radar "from Stockton".

    That's not true.  My flight took off from Calaveras County Airport.  My airplane is based at Stockton Metropolitan Airport, but that's not where I took off.  He asked, "Why don't you file flight plans?"  I answered, "Sir, with all respect, I DID file a flight plan this morning.  I did not activate it, but I did file."  I offered to show him the confirmation e-mail from the DUATS provider (Foreflight). [DUATS is an online system for filing and accepting flight plans.]  He asked why I had not opened the flight plan.  I said, "Flight plans are about Search & Rescue.  This flight was mostly over major highways; if I crashed, the news people would be there before the flight plan expired." [If you are flying VFR, you are not required either to file or to follow an official "flight plan." People sometimes do them to provide guidance to rescuers if the plane does not arrive on time. Under Instrument Flight Rules -- which in effect apply to nearly all commercial flights and to any flight in bad weather -- pilots must file specific routes and follow detailed instructions on altitude and heading from controllers.]
     
    He asked why I didn't use Flight Following.  I said I don't ask for services when I don't need them. ["Flight following" is a courtesy that pilots on a VFR flight can ask of controllers. The pilots can still choose and follow their own routes, but the controller watches out for them on radar and alerts them to other planes nearby, for collision avoidance.]
     
    The lead BP agent asked about my home town, "They grow a lot of drugs in Stockton, don't they?"  I told him Stockton was famous for its imminent bankruptcy and for growing asparagus, but that I had never seen anyone growing drugs.  I asked how he got the impression my home town was a drug capital.  He didn't answer.  I very politely (meekly, actually) asked why he was there.  What had I done wrong?  He said I didn't do anything wrong.  I asked about TFRs.  He said it had nothing to do with TFRs or any kind of airspace 'bust'.  I repeated my question, "What triggered all of this?"  He said the same thing the Deputy Sheriff said.  My flight fit a "profile".  "What profile?"  "You started in California and flew from west to east."  He later hinted that squawking 1200 might be part of the "profile".  I chose not to mention that if I was trying to hide anything, I would have turned the transponder off. [In that case a flight would show up on radar as a little blip, without any identifying information. If it flew low enough it might not show up on radar at all.] I did not want to suggest any "druggie" strategies, no matter how obvious.
     
    At this point, the senior BP agent conferred with the head DEA guy.  He may have gotten back in the King Air to consult with someone in the Citation, which continued to circle at about 3000-5000 feet AGL [Above Ground Level].  While he was away, the junior BP agent conducted another ramp check.  I showed him my pilot and aircraft documentation, but he asked for a Weight & Balance calculation for that day's flight.  [A calculation to ensure that a plane is not overloaded, and that its nose-to-tail weight balance is appropriate for safe flight.] I noted that I am responsible for assuring my airplane is loaded properly, but that I am not required to put it down on paper and carry it aboard the plane.  He said I was wrong and that a W&B for each flight was required to be on board the aircraft.  I asked if he was going to issue a citation and he said, no.  He off-handedly noted that this requirement was little known by most pilots, and said, "We keep this in our back pocket for non-compliant suspects."  That evening I looked it up and confirmed he was wrong.  Part 91 flight operations rules do NOT require that a written W&B for each flight be carried on board. [Part 91 is the section of the FAA rules that governs most small-plane, non-commercial flights. Part 131 mainly governs the airlines.]
     
    The senior BP agent returned and asked if I would consent to a search of my airplane.  I teared up and my voice broke.  I told him, "My Dad fought a war so this can never happen in America.  I will not dishonor my father's memory by giving up what he fought for.  No, sir.  With all due respect, I will not consent to a search without a proper warrant."
     
    All the federal agents huddled up and then the lead BP agent asked if the DEA's drug-sniffing dog could sniff my airplane.  I replied, yes, but on the condition that this would be the last request I would take.  On reflection, I should not have allowed that, either, without a warrant.
     
    A DEA agent led the dog around the plane. The dog sniffed the wheel wells and around the baggage compartment door.  When he ordered the dog up onto the wing, I told him to keep the dog's feet on the black painted wing walk.  He said he could not guarantee that and the dog had "soft paws".  I told them that I would not allow anyone, including the dog, to damage my airplane in ANY WAY WHATSOEVER.  I said he could put the dog on the wing, but only after signing written affirmation that he, personally, would pay for a new paint job if his dog scratched the paint, and only after the other 19 law enforcement people there witnessed and signed it, too. 
     
    I was shaking from having challenged the guy.  He was NOT happy.  Then I offered to allow the dog on the wing if there was a blanket or mat to protect the airplane's painted surfaces.  The handler had the dog sniff the baggage door once more, and the dog gave me a "clean bill of health".
     
    The senior Border Patrol agent stood there for a few seconds, apparently thinking.  I asked if he was satisfied.  He said, "Yeah.  You're free to go."  I said, "I assume that, until right now, I have NOT been free to go.  Is that correct?"  He did not answer, but repeated that I could leave.  I told him that we were leaving to get dinner, and that nobody was to go near my airplane again.  He nodded and we left.
     
    The whole episode lasted about 2 hours.  While the officers who questioned me were not overtly or personally threatening, the situation was intimidating and threatening.  I was never told details of the "profile", so I don't know how to prevent this from happening again, aside from talking to federal employees at all times while flying.  I am concerned that DEA and DHS now have files on me.  This distresses me GREATLY.  I am equally concerned that my plane's tail number is now suspicious in the eyes of law enforcement.
    Here is the account from Clay Phillips:
    I just read your article regarding Gabriel Silverstein and the treatment he experienced.  A month or so ago I was flying my Cessna 180 [small single-engine plane] home from Salt Lake City.  Other than the fact that it was a very windy day it was a normal VFR flight. 

    I filed a flight plan and activated it, and shortly after takeoff I also requested and received VFR flight following from Salt Lake Departure, but was dropped shortly after flying over the mountains because I couldn't fly high enough for the radar to "see" me.  Center ["Center" controllers are part of the air-traffic control system, along with "approach" and "departure" controllers near larger airports and "tower" controllers at those airports] suggested that I could pick up flight following again once I was closer to Moab, UT.  I elected not to pick up flight following again for the remainder of the flight (perfectly legal). 

    When I landed at my home base in Moriarty, NM I was met by the owner/operator of the local FBO [Fixed Base Operator, essentially the managers of small airports] who said that about 15 minutes before I touched down he received a call from Homeland Security and that they wanted him to go find me and ask whether my plane was properly registered.  This is Homeland Security, mind you, not the FAA. 

    I was bewildered why Homeland Security would have any interest in me.  I avoided restricted airspace and did not violate any temporary flight restrictions.  I did absolutely nothing wrong, plus my plane is legal in every respect including current registration.  Clearly, the FAA brought me and my flight to the attention of Homeland security.  I called AOPA legal services [Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association] the next day to ask what I should do.  They said I shouldn't do anything and that they had never heard of such a thing.

    I'm a retired US Navy officer, have held security clearances during my entire time in the Navy, and now into my second career as an engineer for a defense contractor, and am one of the most law-abiding citizens in this country and yet something I did, or didn't do attracted this jack-boot fascist attention from our out-of-control government.  I hope others like me can tell their story to show that Mr. Silverstein was not an "outlier data point".  This is now the new-normal unless the public forces our representatives to do something about it.

    More »

  • Annals of the Security State, Gabriel Silverstein Division

    We all notice the parts of security-overreach that affect us.

    Silverstein1.jpg

    This is Gabriel Silverstein. Unlike me, he is involved in commercial real estate and investment banking, and once worked at Morgan Stanley.  Like me, he is an amateur pilot who likes to fly the Cirrus SR-22 small airplane -- and, as I will soon be doing, he recently was flying his Cirrus from the east coast to the west and back again with his spouse, on business, making a number of business-related or refueling stops along the way.

    At two of these stops this month, he and his airplane, and his husband Angel who was traveling with him, drew the attention of security officials who "happened" to be at the small airports where he landed.  One stop, at an otherwise deserted site in Oklahoma, was perfunctory -- but a few days later, in Iowa, a group of police were apparently waiting for the plane and surrounded it after it landed. They inspected it, with a dog, and took two hours to look through every part of the plane and all of the onboard baggage and possessions, before letting the Silversteins go. According to a fascinating account on the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) site:
     Silverstein, the pilot in command, raised objections and was given three options: wait inside the FBO [the "Fixed Base Operator," the little office that exists at most small airports] or  wait quietly outside, or be detained in handcuffs. An instrument-rated private pilot and AOPA member, Silverstein is also an active real estate investment banker who has never committed a crime, he said.
    You can get more details at the AOPA site or in the opening minutes of the accompanying video, below, produced by my friend Warren Morningstar and featuring an interview with Silverstein.


    Because several aspects of this story seemed so strange, before mentioning it I wanted to check it out a little more. I found a number for Silverstein (whom I do not know) and reached him on his cell phone yesterday while he was getting ready to board a commercial airline flight. 

    He confirmed that the AOPA story was accurate, and that he was filing a Freedom of Information Act request, with AOPA as a backer, to find out why he was apparently targeted for a preemptive,  invasive inspection as he traveled around in perfectly legal fashion. To put this in perspective: it is as if you pulled over at one of the stops on I-95 on the east coast or I-5 on the west, only to find your car surrounded by cops and federal agents who held you for two hours and insisted on looking at every single item in your possession. Also for perspective: the prospect of "ramp checks" by FAA officials, who can show up to make sure that all your certificates, inspections, and other paperwork is in order, is theoretically possible at any moment but in practice is rare. (I am tempting fate to say this, but in 15+ years of active flying it has never happened to me.) 

    "I find it hard to believe that two inspections in four days was completely coincidental," Silverstein told me yesterday. "When I commented to the homeland security guys at the second, more invasive, inspection that this had happened a few days before, they didn't seem fazed by that at all. It seems strange that after a first inspection they would immediately feel the need for another."

    There are more, great-but-terrible details in the AOPA report -- including references to two previous heavy-handed security measures involving small-plane pilots. One, as reported here a few months ago, involved a 70-year-old glider pilot who was handcuffed and jailed for 24 hours for gliding over a nuclear power plant that was not marked with any restrictions on air space. In normal-world terms, this is like being arrested for driving down what looked like a normal street. The other involved two of the most familiar and Mister Rogers-ish benign figures in the aviation world, John and Martha King, who in 2010 were handcuffed and held at gun point by police for no apparent reason.  (Actually, because police mistakenly thought they were flying a stolen plane.)

    To anticipate an objection: we all notice security-state intrusions when they affect our own. For me that includes journalists, in the recent AP-phone records case, and now pilots. But I am not special-pleading here: I am offering data points from (generally very privileged) realms I happen to know about, for the light they shed on the larger over-reach of the security state. And at least I'm consistent. Seven years ago, in an Atlantic cover story, I was arguing that the time had come to "declare victory" in the benighted, open-ended global war on terror, and try to restore some of the sane balance that keeps free societies free.
  • People. Who. Prefer. Not. To. Be. Moved. (Cont.)

    Readers debate who is really to blame for yet another minor "air-rage" episode.

    Thumbnail image for I would prefer not to.jpgYesterday I relayed the story of an airline passenger who asked a fellow business-class traveler to switch seats, so that the first passenger could be next to his wife (as he'd originally been booked) on a long international flight. The person he asked declined to move and turned out to be an air marshal. Reactions:

    1) Please read these items more carefully! A reader writes, addressing me:
    Interesting that  both you and your wife seem to feel entitled to make someone else move to accommodate your needs.

    I get your desire to be together, but why should that trump the desire of someone else to sit where he selected?  Would it have been nice?  Sure.  But it was still his choice.  Not one that you are entitled to make for him.

    There are all sorts of reasons why people select the seats they do.
    In response to this and a slew of other similar messages: I was not reporting my own experience. I was quoting someone else. Here's the line that would have been the giveaway, for those familiar with the realities of modern journalism: "We both had business class seats. Mine, because I paid for them (well, the company did) ..." Just for the record.

    2) Why one might "prefer" not to move.  A female reader -- as you'll see, there is a reason I mention her gender -- writes:
    May I give you another perspective on the travel seat merry-go-round, having nothing to do with *those* passengers that they just. can't. move.

    I am a single traveler. Like you [JF tip: see note #1], I like to get there early to get the seat I want, not only on an airplane, but a tour bus, or sightseeing excursion, or a table or stool at a bar. You'd be surprised at how often I am asked to inconvenience myself and move to a less desirable seat in order to accommodate some guy who wants to sit by his wife or vice versa. Sometimes I don't mind. But a lot of times it is a great inconvenience to have to hoist up all the bags et cetera just to accommodate some guy or his wife who may have come in late and feels entitled to preempt any lower person who is traveling alone. 

    Yes, I really got the evil eye that time I got early to the Hell's Canyon Jet Boat tour and scored the front window seat right behind the driver. Some older guy plopped himself down on the aisle seat next to me and asked me to relocate so his wife could sit with him. No, I politely declined. He went and got the tour operator to ask me to move. No, I prefer not to. Evil eye and a lot of harrumphing ensued. He could have, of course, chosen a seat farther back which had an open row if he just HAD to sit by his wife. But he thought he was entitled to claim his seat and then my seat and make me move. 

     Or, how many times have I been shuffled off to the little tiny table right by the kitchen as a woman eating alone. Or be asked to move myself and my drink down to the end of the bar to accommodate some lady who was late meeting the husband when the bar, where I might have been sitting for several drinks, was now full. No. I prefer not to.

    What? Are these people joined at the hip that they have to sit right next to the wife everywhere they go? They can't separate themselves for two or three hours sitting on a plane? If so, some advance planning might be in order.

    Like I said, a lot of times I don't mind moving to accommodate someone when asked. But yes, sometimes it is an imposition and an inconvenience. Please think about that. What makes me less willing to accommodate people like that is getting called asshole with a lot of evil eye and harrumphing. Which happens a lot, not only by the aggrieved party, but by the staff, who invariably take the aggrieved couple's side.

    Please know that you are inconveniencing someone when you ask them to move. Maybe it doesn't happen as much to you as a man when you travel, but women put up with this kind of crap everywhere they go, as though we are lesser human beings.  
    3) One more in this vein. Another representative note:
    The air marshal issue  -- which was an interesting twist, I admit it didn't occur to me until revealed -- aside, I'm wondering if any other of your readers were as appalled by your correspondent's behavior as I was.  I have certainly asked people to change seats before, and usually they are happy to.  But I always do so understanding that I'm asking a favor, and if they "prefer not to" -- for whatever reason, or for no reason at all -- then to me, that's that.  In my view, no one has any social obligation to trade seats.  It would certainly never remotely occur to me to even ask a second time, much less call them an asshole! Maybe your correspondent has spent so much time in the upper-class sections that he has become just a bit entitled. 
    4) Similarly:
    Interesting air marshal anecdote. I am not too thrilled though of the self-entitlement attitude and action (name calling) exemplified by the reader who submitted the story. We all like to sit together with our spouse, friends or loved ones when we travel, but we must respect the wishes of others if an inconvenience, big or small, is to be put on them. At least that's the way I was taught growing up. I have a friend who has a fear of flying and only does so when it is his last resort; once his travel arrangements are made, i.e. flights are booked, seats are assigned, his wife said he would become notably nervous and antsy if any part of his itinerary is changed. In the context of your anecdote, I can also think of a person not wanting to be moved because he/she has a friend sitting on the other side of the aisle and they couldn't get to sit together either. I usually travel in cattle class and would certainly prefer not to move to the front cabin if my carry-on luggage is in the back.

    Somewhat disappointed to read that a person in business class could go from Mr. Polite to Name Calling in no time because he didn't get his way.
    5)  On the other hand. A reader says:
    I'm with you on this one [Ahem! See note #1] . I just don't get it. What's so magical about that seat that the air marshal (assuming you got it right) couldn't move. I could understand that he needs to be in an aisle seat. With a little more stretch I can imagine he even needs to be in the center section of the 2-2-2. With an even greater stretch, I can see that he has to be on the right side aisle because that's his shooting hand or some such fantasy. But he couldn't be one row forward or back? Give me a break. 

    And as to United - they knew you were a couple traveling together.  Why didn't they move the two of you to the row with the empty seat and move the passenger who was originally next to the empty seat next to the air marshal? The answer is pretty obvious - in spite of your very frequent flyer status, they just didn't give a shit. It's that simple.
    5A) Also on the other hand. Update message:
    I understand that it inconveniences people, sure, but the other day I was on a plane and I politely asked if anyone could move so I could sit by my 8-months pregnant wife.  No one would.  I get that it's an inconvenience, and I certainly have no right to it, but geez - is that really who we are?  Courtesy is by definition an inconvenience.
    6) Non-aviation security theater. From another reader:
    The story about the passenger who could not be moved, who turned out to be an air marshal, reminds me of my first visit to Catoctin Mountain Park soon after i moved to Maryland.  I was going for a day hike, and had done my homework and picked out the trail I wanted to take.  I drove to the visitor center and asked for directions to the trail head.  The staff very nicely told me that I couldn't do that hike, as that trail was closed that day. 

    This surprised me.  I have had trails closed due to rock slides and forest fires and the like, but none of these seemed to apply here.  So I asked why it was closed.  They very nicely declined to answer the question, but repeated that it was closed.  We went around in circles a bit, until it dawned on me that this is where Camp David is, and the President or some other important person was there that day.   I asked if this was the case, and they very nicely refused to answer this while nodding.  So I hiked a different trail. 

    I had always known that Camp David was in Maryland, but never thought about exactly where.  The silly thing is that I also had a topographical map of the area.  Once I knew what to look for, it was immediately obvious that the oddly shaped blank area was Camp David.  Once I got home I checked it out on Google Maps satellite view, and there it was, perfectly obvious.  

    The moral I take away from this is that there is a lot of theatrical faux secrecy out there.  Like the air marshal, the idea that this is an actual secret is BS.  There are ample clues for anyone to figure it out, and once they suss out the secret it is easily confirmed.  I imagine that the government agencies involved are happier imagining it is a genuine secret, while the low-level employees enjoy the thrill of being in on it, but they also enjoy showing random passersby that they are in on it, which rather removes any actual secrecy.  But everyone has a good time.
    7) Segueing to United. I am going to think carefully about how to explain my evolving theory of United Airlines -- on which I have millions upon millions of accumulated miles, and super-elite status that makes it foolish not to go on United when I have a choice, but on which I still am regularly amazed by the "not my job / not my problem / I don't really like working here so leave me alone as I try to get through this shift" culture that radiates from employees to customers. I'll ease into it by a contrasting account about another airline. A reader in the tech industry writes:
    Apropos of your coming blog series of the woes of the United traveller:

    I'm in the American camp. After 9/11, it became imperative to have elite status on some US airline if only to save hours of waiting in line. At that moment, I happened to have some status on American, and I've been in their orbit since. (I'm not a huge traveller, alas, but do manage to edge over the lowest elite-status bar each year. If I don't stick to one network, though, I'd lose my status.) 

    Now, all the US carrier have fairly poor service reputations, travel is inherently frustrating, and there's not very much an airline can do to make a trip memorably good while all sorts of things can make it memorably terrible. This makes customer-facing jobs in airlines especially tricky. Actually doing special services for passengers disrupts your work ands risks annoying everyone, yet the essence of service is that special, unexpected thing the passenger wants or needs. 

    To make it worse: the TSA ensures that most flights start with barrage of tedious annoyances. The airline can't do much about that. (If I were them, I'd be tempted to experiment with strolling entertainers or standup comics -- anything to make it less horrible. But that might not square with security theater.)

    You would think that American -- with financial trouble, labor trouble, and trouble digesting the remains of TWA -- would suffer from especially serious service problems in recent years. If you're a customer-facing veteran and you're not sure that the airline will be there next year, or that you'll be there, or that your boss will be your boss, it's tempting to stop caring and to cut corners. And yes, you see this sometimes. 

    But I've also seen indications that people care -- that they sometimes care more than they should.  A couple of years ago, my wife and I and boarded in coach and were happy enough. Then -- good news! -- there were seats in business class for us!  So we moved. But then the no-show couple arrived. We prepared to pack up and return to our old seats, but were told to hold on.  The flight attendant and the gate agent discussed, and discussed some more, and eventually got into a real rhubarb over the question of who should get these seats.  It was spectacular. And it was odd, too, because neither had a stake here. Someone would sit in each pair of seats; it wasn't going to make a difference in anyone's work load.  We hadn't made any fuss at all, nor had the other couple, so there was no fear of a disgruntled, angry customer. The plane would be out of the gate agent's hair in seconds, the flight would be over in a couple of hours. It was a pure debate on user experience; is it better to disappoint someone whose expectations you raised, or to deprive someone of an upgrade because they arrived late?

    On the whole, I've been impressed with the operation. There's lots that people can do better, but it's not half bad.
    We all recognize that in modern airline culture, not half bad is fairly high praise. More to come.

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