When ‘Suspicious’ Activity on Flights Really Isn’t


An American Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Syracuse was delayed when a passenger suggested her seatmate might be a terrorist.

Karen Bleier/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Last week, as reported by The Associated Press, a passenger, apparently alarmed by math equations being solved by her seatmate, caused the delayed departure of an American Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Syracuse when she suggested he might be a terrorist. The accused turned out to be Guido Menzio, a University of Pennsylvania economics professor working on a differential equation.

The crew of the flight, run by Air Wisconsin, apparently followed the protocol for sick passengers when the woman passed a note to the flight attendant with the alert and said she was too sick to fly. The flight returned to the gate where Mr. Menzio was questioned briefly. The plane then departed late with the mathematician, and the woman was rebooked on later flight.

Fliers are frequently reminded to “report suspicious activity” in prerecorded announcements at airports, but what qualifies as suspicious isn’t always clear. The Department of Homeland Security has a program called If You See Something, Say Something that lists the following as potentially indicative of terrorism: packages or luggage left unattended, or an unusual circumstance, like an open door that is usually closed; a person seeking in-depth information on a building’s purpose, security procedures or shift changes; and anyone loitering around a building, taking notes, sketches, photographs or measurements.

On its website, the department notes, “Factors such as race, ethnicity, and/or religious affiliation are not suspicious.” Yet ethnic profiling has resulted in several incidents such as this one, including, as reported on CNN, when a Southwest Airlines flier was kicked off a flight in April for speaking Arabic.

“This seems to be a case of ‘see something, say something’ getting out of control,” George Hobica, the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, wrote in an email. “If too many passengers cry ‘terrorist’ every time someone looks ‘Middle Eastern’ or has curly hair or is merely having a phone conversation in Arabic and wears a beard, it may lessen the effectiveness of ‘citizen vigilance’ efforts.”

“How this got out of hand is beyond me,” he added. “A few quick questions should have settled the matter in a couple of minutes.”

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