Reconciling Security, Sense and Service  
 

It is possible to be security-conscious and still be polite and courteous at the same time.  Airlines - please take note!

We should all be vigilant and cautious in these uncertain times, but the airlines must mix courtesy and common sense into their approach and attitude to the people that are their customers.

The United incident detailed on the right is sadly almost certainly not the only such incident, and neither are they the only airline making such over-zealous errors.  But what is so hard about a simply 'sorry' after making a mistake, rather than perpetuating and aggravating it still further?  If airlines continue to over-react the way that United did in this incident, pretty soon they will be 100% secure - because no-one will be flying with them!

Yes, airlines do have a right to expect their passengers to behave reasonably and appropriately.  If passengers misbehave, the airlines can - and should - charge them with 'air rage' or simply refuse to let them fly.  And if airlines have credible reasons for worrying that a passenger may be a terrorist in disguise, they should of course prudently refer the matter to the proper trained authorities for a response.

But we as passengers also have a right to expect the airlines to behave reasonably and appropriately.  Increasingly, airlines are acting like unaccountable school-yard bullies, as the story on the right recounts.  Refusing to allow a legitimate passenger to travel because an untrained airline employee can not read an Arizona driver's license is unfair and unacceptable, and doesn't make any of us any the more safe or secure.  If an employee can't recognise a valid ID, what chance do they have of recognizing a fake ID!

Following appropriate security precautions is no excuse for lying and is no excuse for stupidity.  It is possible to be security-sensitive and also polite, courteous and sensible - look at just about any policeman or other law enforcement officer.

Successful policing depends upon earning the trust, cooperation and respect of the citizens the police serve.  Surely operating a successful (and safe) airline requires exactly the same approach.

My read on all of this is clear - the airlines are losing at least as many passengers due to their bad service as they are to people's worries about the safety of air travel.

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Everyone is understandably concerned about security at present, and some over-reaction is perhaps occasionally unavoidable and acceptable.  When such mistakes occur, the chances are that a generally sympathetic public will respond positively to a simple 'We're sorry, we made a mistake'.

But United's actions in Philadelphia on 10 October cross the line into seriously inappropriate behavior, and their subsequent attempts to try and shift the blame by lying (rather than admitting their mistake and apologizing) is entirely out of place in a society based on honesty and transparency.

A Novel Approach to Airplane Security

Have you ever read a Tom Clancy novel?  How about his recent best-seller, Debt of Honor, which climaxes with terrorists hijacking a passenger plane and crashing it into the White House (the theme of terrorists using commercial airplanes as weapons is actually quite common in fiction - see also Dale Brown's best seller Storming Heaven).  Well, you better not try to take books like these - or just about any other modern action/adventure/thriller - onto flights with you now.

If you do take such books on a flight, you might suffer the same unfortunate fate as did Neil Godfrey when he tried to fly from Philadelphia back to his parents in Phoenix on United.

It all started when a security guard noticed that the book Neil was carrying to read on the flight - Hayduke Lives! by Edward Abbey - had a picture of a man's hand holding several sticks of dynamite on its cover.  This triggered the security guard's suspicion that perhaps neatly dressed, clean shaven, quiet, Caucasian 22 year old Neil might be a terrorist.  Ten minutes later, Neil was accosted while sitting and waiting for his flight at its gate by a National Guardsman.  He was taken away for questioning by a mix of National Guardsmen, airport security officers, city police and state troopers.  After 45 minutes of interrogation, and some 10-12 different people inspecting the 'suspicious book', common sense prevailed at last and Neil was told that there was no problem and he went back to the gate and resumed waiting for his flight.

Ten more minutes pass, and then a United employee approached Neil and tells him that he is not being allowed to take this flight, for three reasons :

  • Because he was reading a book with a picture of a bomb on the cover.  (Seems to me that this would describe about half of most modern thrillers and adventure novels, many of which are on sale in airport bookstalls)
  • Because he bought his ticket on 11 September.  (Neil pointed out that he bought his ticket shortly after midnight, eight hours before the disastrous events of later that morning)
  • Because his driver's license had expired.  (Neil pointed out that the date the woman was referring to was the issue date, not the expiry date.  The woman then pointed to a second date, which Neil said was the date he turned 21, not the date the license expired - his license was valid and current)

The woman told him 'too bad, its too late', and Neil had no choice but to leave the airport, guilty of - well, absolutely nothing at all.

But wait, there's more.

Neil's mother called United's reservation office and spoke to an agent who said that Neil was free to fly on any other flights, whenever he wished.  The agent made a booking for Neil to fly out later that afternoon.

This time Neil wised up.  He left the offending book behind.  Instead he took a Harry Potter book to read. (In case anyone in the world doesn't know, the Harry Potter series of children's books have become an extraordinary best selling phenomenon and are generally acclaimed as well written and suitable for children and other readers of all ages.)

Unfortunately for Neil, he was recognized at the airport, and this time his Harry Potter book was suspiciously studied by four different people for twenty minutes.  Eventually he was told that he would be allowed to fly, but would not be allowed through the security barrier until immediately before the flight (why?).  He waited, and at the appropriate time, with at least 15 law enforcement people watching (!), he was escorted through the security screening.  But instead of going to the gate, they took him to a private interrogation room where he was patted down.  Unsurprisingly, nothing was found.  And so, what happened next - did Neil finally get to fly to Phoenix?

No.  Burt Zastera, United's Supervisor of Airport Operations in Philadelphia, told Neil that he would not be allowed to fly.  He refused to explain why, but gave him a phone number he could call to be informed of the reason for the decision (why couldn't Zastera - United's most senior person at the airport - explain this himself?).  Neil was free to go - home, that is, definitely not to Phoenix!  He left the airport and had his father call the contact phone number.

When Neil's father called, he was told that Neil had been banned from flying United because he 'cracked a joke about bombs'.

Neil of course denies doing any such thing.  But it isn't just a case of Neil's word against some faceless person at United.  The facts are simple and clearly suggest United is lying about this.  FAA regulations require that any passenger who jokes about explosives be arrested on the spot.  If Neil truly had 'cracked a joke about a bomb', this would have caused Neil to be in the slammer in double quick time. But, he was never charged or even accused of breaking any law, much less making inappropriate references to explosives.  In fact, Philadelphia Police officers didnít even file any incident report at all, according to department spokesman Cpl. Jim Pauley - it was a complete non-event as far as they were concerned.

Neil's full story is told in this article by the Philadelphia CityPaper.Net.

United's airport supervisor Zastera says he has been forbidden from discussing the incident.  United's spokesman Chris Bradwig says he is 'unaware' of the incident, but, even if he were aware, he couldn't comment because United never comments on 'security' matters.

A supervisor at the security company that United contracts with to provide its security screening at Philadelphia places the blame fairly on United's shoulders.  She explained that the only people that can make a decision about who boards a plane are the airline managers themselves.  This is confirmed by the Philadelphia Airport's spokesman.

So let's stop and review what happened.  Neil Godfrey committed no unlawful act, even though United subsequently lied and suggested he did - a lie that was contradicted by the Philadelphia police.  He did not misbehave or in any way do anything different to that which countless other people do, every day, in the course of their normal flying.

He was guilty, apparently, of three things on his first visit - having an ordinary book that is perfectly legal to own, not obscene or pornographic or unusually violent or anything like that; of having booked his flights eight hours before the terrorist actions on 11 September, and of having a driver's license that a United employee was too incompetent to correctly read.

On his second visit, he appeared to have been guilty of nothing at all!

Neil's treatment at the hands of United is completely out of place in a free society and is more like one would expect under the Taliban regime (they have restrictions on the books they allow their citizens to read, too, and don't feel themselves bound by 'due process' and fairness).  This is a completely inappropriate way for any commercial airline to treat one of its fare paying passengers.  Imagine if you stopped at a gas station, the only one for miles around, and with the needle on empty.  You're about to fill up when the attendant says 'I'm sorry, but I don't like your bumper sticker and so we're not going to serve you'.  Maybe the attendant says 'Your sticker makes me worry that you're going to take your car and smash it into a public building'.

The airlines are now acting like this, and some ill-informed members of the public are cheering them on, thinking that if the airlines prevent people like Neil from boarding their flights, they'll surely be preventing real terrorists too.

Folks - it just shouldn't happen that way. Neil, you, me, all of us - we have a right to a predictable experience at the airport, and a right to be flown on the ticket the airline has sold us (unless it can demonstrate a credible reason to leave us behind).  The convicted witches in Salem at least were given a trial (even if not a very good one!) before being burned; people like Neil have no recourse, no comeback, and, often times, no real alternative to flying.

I don't know about you, but I'm sure reluctant to risk similar mistreatment.  Heck, I might be carrying John J Nance's best selling book about terrorists crashing civilian airplanes with laser weapons (Blackout).  Even though John Nance is a senior captain with Alaska Airlines (he writes airplane themed action thrillers - something that was formerly perfectly politically correct), I fear that the simple act of carrying such a book might now be enough to get me banned from flying 'the friendly skies' too.

The most regrettable part of this is the incredible arrogance that United displays.  We all make mistakes, and the key part of a mistake is how one responds when the mistake is discovered.  Rather than say 'We're sorry, in this difficult time we simply over-reacted and made some bad judgment calls' - a response which anyone should understand and accept; United lies and tries to blame poor Neil, and then clams up and refuses to comment because it is a 'security matter'.

No, it is not a security matter.  It is a service matter, and as long as United (and the other airlines) fail to understand what service is, their future will indeed be, as UA's own Chairman admits, gravely at risk.

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Copyright 2001 by David M Rowell.