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When It Comes To Flight Safety, When Does Alertness Become Racial Profiling?


Travelers are encouraged to report what they think looks like suspicious behavior. That puts flight attendants in the position of assessing the passenger that they report. And what if the traveler's just being paranoid or racist? When does vigilance become racial profiling? Gillian Brockell used to be a flight attendant. She now works for The Washington Post, and wrote about what she saw on the job and joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

GILLIAN BROCKELL: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What were you trained to spot when it comes to suspicious passengers?

BROCKELL: Most suspicious passengers are drunk people, to be honest. But if you're looking for a terrorist, the main thing to think about is that this is a person who believes that they're about to die. And when you believe you're about to die, there are physiological reaction that are not within your control. And it's like sweating, being very jittery and not being able to have a normal conversation, which is why it's so important, when we think someone is suspicious or when someone else has told us that someone is suspicious, to have a conversation with them

SIMON: How often, in your experience, do you get tipped by a traveler who, as you analyze it, might have been motivated by racism - if not outright hatred, then at least someone who just didn't understand national and cultural differences?

BROCKELL: The incident that I wrote about in the column, I remember it because it was so rare. You know, you'll see some passengers looking at other passengers in perhaps a rude manner - like if you see someone wearing a niqab and other passengers are sort of gaping at them rudely. That happens. But for a passenger to say, this person is suspicious - and, you know, it may be for racist or Islamophobic reasons - it's extremely rare.

SIMON: Do you recall any stories?

BROCKELL: What happened was we were flying from south Florida to JFK. And a middle-aged white women leaned forward, and she whispered to me. She said, there is a man four people behind me in a green shirt, and he is very suspicious. And I immediately thought, this woman might be racist; I also need to take her seriously. So I asked her, what is he doing? Can you describe for me what about him is suspicious? And she just said, you'll see. And so I thought, OK, well then, I must be able to see something. When he came down, he just seemed completely normal. He was not jittery in any way. He was not looking around suspiciously. His clothing was normal. The green shirt was a Green Bay Packers shirt. It was football season. And...

SIMON: As a Bears fan, I would also immediately pick on the Green Bay Packers fan.

BROCKELL: Right, exactly (laughter) - and, you know, I might finger someone who was wearing a Raiders jersey. But, you know, that's just my unconscious bias, right? And so I leaned on my training, and I just looked for those signs of a potential threat. I engaged him in a conversation. He was able to respond to my questions completely normally. And then once he took his seat, I walked by and I carefully observed him again. He was completely casual. He was not sitting stiffly in any way. He had his headphones on, and he was watching the game. Someone who believes that they are about to die generally doesn't turn on football.

SIMON: And to recap, using football terms, this was very rare in your flights.

BROCKELL: Absolutely - absolutely. More often you'll get biases against people who are larger or mothers with crying children. There's all kinds of cultural issues that you come into contact with. And part of being a flight attendant is understanding what is and is not your job to judge.

SIMON: If a flight attendant's wrong about a passenger, and they turn out to be innocent, maybe the airline gets some bad publicity and perhaps a lawsuit. But if a flight attendant dismisses a traveler's complaint because they think they're being racist, and something happens on that plane, that's a catastrophe. So doesn't this encourage flight attendants just to take no chances and have the passenger removed?

BROCKELL: You can't make an assessment based on the training that you received if you haven't talked to the suspicious passenger. Not being biased about our passengers - it's important for their comfort, but it's also important to protect them from terrorism. If Islamic State gets the impression the flight attendants are only flagging Middle Eastern, Arabic-speaking or Muslim-appearing customers, that's a weakness in the system, and then they can say, OK, cool, let's just go send the blonde-haired, blue-eyed guy and make sure he speaks German the whole time. So removing ourselves from bias and relying on our training is also safer for the passengers and protects them from terrorism.

SIMON: Gillian Brockell is a video editor now with The Washington Post and a former flight attendant. Thanks so much for being with us.

BROCKELL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.