Unfriendly Skies

Unfriendly Skies

The FAA, which had long ignored airlines' requests for help with unruly passengers, is now relying on those same airlines' apparent racial profiling when deciding who gets to fly.


Arshad Chowdhury describes what happened to him at San Francisco Airport one morning in October with precision, calm and all the aplomb expected of a Carnegie Mellon MBA student with a Wesleyan undergraduate degree. At least that is how he starts. But as he talks, his voice betrays growing agitation. It becomes clear that this Connecticut-born son of a cardiologist and teacher is bewildered, angry and more than a little shaken. "I still believe in the integrity of the system," he says. "At least I want to. But this stunned me."

The controversy over the Bush Administration's most extreme antiterrorism measures–military tribunals, secret evidence, taping of attorney-client conversations–has to a large extent obscured the far more widespread impact of the post-September 11 climate on Muslim Americans going about their routine business. Consider Chowdhury. He did not end up in handcuffs or in secret detention. Instead, he was victim of the lingering airport-security debacle. Yet for that very reason his story is emblematic.

For Chowdhury, October 23 began as a routine day of air travel. It was a Tuesday. At a beginning of the weekend, Chowdhury had left Carnegie Mellon to visit a friend in San Francisco. Now he was headed home to Pittsburgh and, mindful of post-September 11 security, had arrived at San Francisco International Airport with plenty of time to spare.

Chowdhury's flight on Northwest, he recalls, was supposed to leave at 12:25 PM. He cleared security and arrived at the gate. Then at noon, someone called his name over the public address system. At the desk, the airline's agent and supervisor asked him to produce his identification. What they said startled him: "They said the pilot saw a 'phonetic similarity' between my name and someone on a terrorist list."

Phonetic similarity? Under other circumstances, Chowdhury might have laughed. His last name is the South Asian equivalent of Smith, common in various spellings among Muslims and Hindus alike. He didn't laugh, of course. For one thing, the events of September 11 had struck Chowdhury hard: He had worked in the World Trade Center at Bankers' Trust-Deutsche Bank for two years, and knew people who were working there on September 11. Plus, as Chowdhury absorbed the notion of being singled out by a pilot for his phonetic profile, he found himself surrounded by two Northwest security guards and four police officers, soon joined by two FBI agents. A crowd had gathered and was starting to point at a 5-feet-4-inch, South Asian-looking young man surrounded by armed cops and soldiers. He worried aloud about missing his flight. The terse answer from a Northwest agent: "If we find something, you're not going anywhere, buddy."

Over the next half-hour, Chowdhury was searched and his bags rummaged. The FBI and police took his ID, ran their background check and handed it back to him assuring him there was no problem.

A relieved Arshad Chowdhury headed back to the gate, where the final passengers for Pittsburgh were still boarding. Up until that moment, Chowdhury was annoyed and inconvenienced, but he was willing to shrug it off. It was on his return to the gate that Chowdhury suddenly found himself reeling. "The last passenger was through the door, and I was next. Instead, a flight attendent came out, closed the door and said, 'I'm sorry, sir. This won't make sense to you, but you can't fly with us.' "

"You can't fly with us." The Northwest supervisor affirmed the flight attendant's words. At this point, Chowdhury was trying hard to maintain his cool. "I'm still surrounded by all the police and security and FBI. So I ask the FBI agent, am I a security issue? No. The police? No. Can the airline do this to me? The police again: 'It's a private company.' " The pilot's "phonetic profiling" of Chowdhury would be allowed to rule the day.

In theory, the federal government–and in particular Secretary of Transportation Mineta–have taken a hard stand against airline ethnic profiling. But in reality, the FAA has done little to prevent such arbitrary judgments. On November 19, the US Department of Transportation's Consumer Practices Division issued guidelines "Concerning the Air Travel of People Who Are or May Appear to Be of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian Descent, and/or Muslim or Sikh." The DOT says travelers "may not be subjected to inspection, search, and/or detention solely because the persons appear to be Arab, Middle Eastern, Asian, and/or Muslim or Sikh." But that "solely" stands as a huge loophole through which can flow all manner of arbitrary suspicion, and the DOT offers no more specific guidelines. In Chowdhury's case it meant that "The FBI and police had cleared me–and it didn't matter. I wasn't flying, all because some pilot didn't like my name."

Kurt Ebenhoch, a spokesman for Northwest, declines comment on the specifics of Chowdhury's exclusion, but he says that ethnic profiling "is not a fair characterization" of Northwest's security procedures, "which are in compliance with FAA guidelines." There is, he says, "a longstanding tradition of flight crews assuming responsibility for passenger safety."

The kind of anti-Muslim bias from a flight crew experienced by Chowdhury, it must be pointed out, may be all the more likely because the FAA has for so long neglected basic air safety as thoroughly as it glosses over ethnic profiling. In early December, USA Today (which since September 11 has published pathbreaking investigative reporting on both air safety and discrimination against immigrants) revealed that between 1990 and 2000 the FAA took no action in 90 percent of unruly-passenger reports filed by flight crews. In hundreds of cases they didn't even bother to open an investigation. Among them were physical assaults on passsengers and crew, grotesque sexual harassment and knife-wielding threats.

Pilots and flight attendants, on the downstream end of on-the-cheap security run for the benefit of airlines, are rightly convinced that the system does not protect them. And after September 11–with legislators focused on corporate bailouts rather than quick passage of airline-security legislation–flight crews found no greater cause for confidence. "Those of us who steeled ourselves enough to return to work were jumpy and shaky," says Rodney Ward, a US Airways flight attendant and union steward now laid off. "With the FAA and our corporate management offering no suggestions of what to do, we began developing our own strategies." He finds it unsurprising–if deplorable–that the vacuum has led some pilots or attendants to give free rein to bigotry.

The flight crews' fears, it turns out, are backed up by hard data, as evidenced in those December 2001 USA Today reports on FAA negligence.

In this sense, civil rights advocates and air crews share common ground. Cases such as Chowdhury's, says Washington, DC, attorney Christine Lopez, a veteran of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division now at Relman & Associates, a civil rights law firm in Washington, D.C., is "a security system based on the wrong criteria." As she points out, ethnic profiling makes all passengers less safe by diverting attention from more meaningful screening and reforms.

Arshad Chowdhury was finally able to get home on a different airline, US Airways–though not without further hassles. When he arrived at the US Airways gate, Chowdhury learned there was a "security block" on his name–automatically filed because of his earlier enounter with the police. He was nearly denied a flight once again when a senior US Airways supervisor grasped what had happened, overrode it and got him on board. "By the time I got on board," says Chowdhury, "I just wanted to disappear." (In fact, that "security block" would remain on Chowdhury's name for another month, until it was removed after he was nearly kept off of yet another flight.)

As wrongful profiling goes, it could have been a lot worse. Chowdrey's cool temperament kept him from overreacting and being arrested at the airport. Yet the impact on him was profound–particularly, he finds on reflection, the collusion of all those police, FBI agents and airline officials with a pilot's groundless judgment. "I can't begin to tell you how helpless this makes me feel," he says. He has found himself scanning his bookshelf, wondering if there is anything that could get him in trouble. He has noticed his parents in Connecticut, both Bangladeshi immigrants who arrived thirty years ago, suddenly staying home. "They have always felt the United States was a safe place. Now it hurts them that they find themselves second-guessing their decision to stay." He has started to hear similar stories from the South Asian community in Pittsburgh.

Chowdhury is not alone. Civil rights attorneys report a flood of air-travel discimination complaints. And if what Chowdhury and others describe involves the small change of day-to-day life–his cool temperament kept him from being arrested at the airport–it is important to remember that an accumulation of such small-change disruptions can add up to lives lived in considerable fear. One Indian Muslim kept off a flight under similar circumstances, for instance, says he has advised his sons to cut their hair so they look less "Middle Eastern," has switched jobs at his company to avoid travel and has canceled his family's holiday plans to avoid air travel.

More than anything else, such stories demonstrate how ill prepared the system is to protect Muslim Americans–particularly those more vulnerable than an educated, middle-class business student. Indeed, it is clear that despite President Bush's initial antidiscrimination rhetoric and his laudable visits to mosques after September 11, the Administration is now leading by example in precisely the opposite direction. Muslim communities are getting the picture. As Chowdhury himself points out, his status as a native-born, educated, middle-class citizen gives his complaint an authority not felt by more vulnerable immigrants. Says Chowdhury, "What I keep hearing in the South Asian community in Pittsburgh are a lot of stories about people having experiences like this who just decide to keep their heads down. They just don't want to draw attention." With the entire Muslim male immigrant population in effect "profiled" by Attorney General John Ashcroft's order for 5,000 interviews nationwide, official tolerance for senseless ethnic profiling appears to be growing even as September 11 recedes.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An early draft of this story was inadvertantly posted without the author's approval for several hours on December 19. This draft contained several significant errors, including misidentifying the airline involved. The Nation regrets the errors.

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