An Airline Captain, Plus the Germans, on Flying While Brown

1) From a captain at a U.S. airline:

Let me first say that I was appalled by the Frontier Airlines situation that happened on 9/11. I am a captain at a major US airline and I just thought I'd walk you through a recent scenario I experienced on a domestic flight.

The lead flight attendant called the cockpit about 30 minutes into the flight with an issue. She had a two groups of Pakistanis sitting in separate sections of the aircraft. Sometime after we were at altitude the groups were able to switch seats and all sit together. This had made the flight attendants somewhat concerned and she thought I should know about it. I thanked her for the information, tried to convey my belief that it was not going to be a problem and we continued on our way. As I expressed to the copilot "imagine wanting to sit with people you know" and thought very little of it the rest of the flight. I was fortunate to have a level headed lead flight attendant who didn't overly misrepresent the situation and who took my input as it was intended.

At the pointy end of the jet there are many things under my control but it's an effort at times to gauge the personalities and judgement of the people in back once the door closes. In this case I didn't want to dismiss the flight attendant's concerns out of hand (I may/will need her input on any other developments during the flight) but also wanted to set a proper tone and perspective. There are some tools available (communication with the company and other outside agencies) but since I can't step into the rear of the airplane it's often a question of the information I receive from the flight attendants that will determine the course of action.

I would hope that nothing like what happened with the Frontier crew could happen at my airline but I can imagine certain people overreacting and heading down that same path.

2) From Frontier AIrlines, the FBI, the TSA, and the local cops. According to this AP story, it seems to be dawning on all of them that this didn't work just right, and each is essentially blaming the others for letting things get out of hand. Eg, Frontier says that if there was an overreaction, they had nothing to do with it:

The crew "responded to concerns expressed by passengers on their aircraft about the suspicious activity of two gentlemen . and only two gentlemen," [Frontier spokesman Peter] Kowalchuk said. "After that, what happened was out of the control of the Frontier crew or anyone at Frontier Airlines, for that matter.

"When they arrived and boarded the aircraft, the authorities did not consult any member of the crew . not the pilots, not the flight attendants . before taking action and removing the two men and a third person, Ms. Hebshi."

If you read the story you'll see the police, TSA, FBI, etc saying: Hey, the other guys were the ones pushing this. I suppose this reaction is an improvement over the first-day FBI posture of, Better safe than sorry, the system worked.

3) The Germans can't believe what's become of us. An American in Europe writes:

I have no horror-stories to share, but on this theme I thought I'd share this:

I just had to go to the US embassy in the leafy outskirts of Berlin to renew my passport. So I go through all the security (worse than an airport - you can't bring a cell phone inside), and the scanner catches my water bottle. My bag is large and full of stuff, and a smallish line forms as I dig through it in search of the damn bottle. I find it, and the security guard asks me to drink from it in front of her. Behind me, I can tell the Americans apart because they're all sort of grinning to themselves and shaking their heads, some look at me in sympathy, a kind of "yeah yeah I know, its nuts" camaraderie. The Germans though, they're just openly staring. They're flabbergasted.

I have the same reaction from the perspective of China. By far the most stringent security shakedowns I ever went through in China were when trying to enter the U.S. Embassy in Beijing either for interviews or to do some consular chore. Yes, the average Chinese citizen endures many security-state aspects far beyond what Americans do. But for minute-by-minute security theater, in details like having to "show ID"* when entering a building or the mania about what might be in a bottle, the US is pretty much leading the way.

More items in the pipeline.

* I put "show ID" in air-quotes because this is so often the purest distillation of security theater. At so many DC office buildings, I have to pull out my driver's license and show it to a guard who often is a recent immigrant and doesn't seem quite sure which line is my name and which is my place of birth. For a while in 2002 and 2003 I began signing my name as "Mullah Omar" when forced to sign in on an office logbook. I eventually tired of the joke, but the people maintaining the logbooks have not tired of the requirement.

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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.


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