Sunday, January 4, 2009

Will The Real Terrorists Please Stand Up?

AirTran Airways, true believers in the concept "never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups," is now valiantly attempting to appear contrite in the wake of their inexcusable decision to kick members of a Muslim family off of a plane and then refusing to book them on another flight, even though FBI agents had cleared the family of any wrongdoing and had requested that the airline rebook the family members.

AirTran originally yanked the group from a flight set to depart from Reagan National in Washington DC, bound for Orlando, when they became concerned by conversations overheard as they awaited departure.

These "suspicious" conversations included the family discussing where the safest part of the plane might be, as they shuffled up the aisle to find their seats. A passenger overheard, notified a flight attendant, who in turn made the cockpit crew aware. This led to the onboard air marshals being asked to remove the Muslim family from the plane.

Is there anything that a Muslim family might say on a commercial airliner that might not cause concern for at least one passenger, especially since the odds are pretty high that a percentage of all fliers are charter members of the Bill O'Reilly - Sean Hannity fear-monging brigade? These folks believe that racial profiling is not only acceptable, but the responsibility of all true red-blooded patriotic Americans. You're either with us, or you're against us, right?

Conversely, what would the reaction be if a group of Muslims boarded a plane and sat silently, eyes fixed straight ahead at all times? I'm certain that several FOX News devotees would find this equally disquieting, and the result would probably have been the same.

But you can't cure stupid, so we'll always have instances like this, which is why airlines and the TSA (allegedly) have processes in place to separate the real security risks from those caused by misperception, misunderstanding, and bigotry. And processes, by definition, are standard and repeatable.

AirTran hustled this family off the plane and ran them through interviews by the FBI, who quickly determined that no actual risk existed. Score one for the process working as designed. The stories of what happened next, however, differ between the FBI and AirTran.

The FBI claims that once their interviews were completed and the family was cleared of suspicion, they attempted to get AirTran to rebook the group on another AirTran flight, but representatives from AirTran refused. The FBI then arranged to have the family continue their travel on US Airways.

AirTran claimed in a written statement that it did not re-book the family only because the security issue had not been resolved, and because one member of the group "became irate and made inappropriate comments."

It's difficult to take this statement at face value when three hours later AirTran issued another statement that appeared to contradict their earlier press releases that indicated they were unapologetic about the way they handled the incident.

"We regret that the issue escalated to the heightened security level it did," AirTran said in a statement Friday afternoon. "But we trust everyone understands that the security and the safety of our passengers is paramount."

Security and safety is important, but not paramount. That's simply an "ends justifies the means" attempt to excuse poor decisioning that does nothing more than shine a bright light on the heresy involved. The one thing I hope we've learned during the past eight years is that taking extreme measures that trample civil liberties is not permissible, even if the stated objective is maintaining the safety and security of the populace. Throughout history, citizens have always had more reasons to fear a secretive, oppressive government than they have small, radical groups intent on acts of destruction.

When the FBI cleared the family of any suspicion and asked AirTran to assist them in getting these folks to their destination, the correct response was for AirTran to cooperate with the FBI and make these travelers whole. Their refusal is a black eye for their entire organization, and no amount of apologizing, free travel, or public groveling can change that fact.

Nice going, AirTran. If you see a white male with short hair on one of your flights, looking slightly like an FBI agent, it won't be me. I choose to exercise my right to never fly with you again.

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