Passenger: United Cabin Crew Thinks Books About Old Airplanes Signify A Security Threat

Last week, folk singer and aviation enthusiast Vance Gilbert thought he’d pass the time on his United Airlines flight from Boston to Washington, DC, by perusing some books about old aircraft. This was apparently enough to set off alarm bells among the flight crew, who had the plane return to the gate where Gilbert was met by the authorities.

From a copy of the letter Gilbert sent to United, the ACLU and posted on his website:

After the doors were closed the flight attendant came down the aisle checking security buckling, bag clearance etc., and asked if she could put my fanny pack above me in the overhead bin. I replied to her that I’d be fine just stuffing it next to my back-pack under seat in front of me as it contained my wallet etc and that I’d rather have it near. She seemed fine with that resolution… All that was done without consternation or belligerence, and I thought nothing of it.

Now, I am a musician by trade and an amateur aviation historian, studying mostly European transport aircraft between WW 1 and WW 2, and some after. I was on my way to two different music festivals. When I travel I delve into reading about this era of aviation. I had taken out and was reading a book of Polish Aircraft circa 1946 and I was also looking at views of an Italian aircraft from 1921.

I think you see where this is going…

The plane went all the way out to the take-off point, in the queue for take-off. All the while I noticed a lot of phone pinging back and forth between the flight attendants. The young woman flight attendant was also crouched next to and conversing seriously to a dead-heading pilot about 4 seats up on the other side. The plane then proceeded to turn around and head all the way back to the gate. Once at the gate, the jet bridge was positioned. The Captain announced, “We have a minor issue, and we will continue our departure once it’s resolved.” He left the aircraft.

After about 5-10 minutes, 2 Mass State Policemen, 1 or 2 TSA Agents… come down the aisle and motion me to get off of the plane. I do not remember if they called me by name. We stepped out into the breezeway where one of the State policemen asked how I was doing that day.

I replied, “Sir, I think you’re going to tell me I could be doing much better…”

Policeman: “Did you have a problem with your bag earlier?”

Me: “No sir, not at all. The flight attendant wanted it secured elsewhere other than behind my feet, and I opted to put it under the seat in front of me. It’s my wallet, even though there’s only 30 bucks in it…”

Policeman: “Sir, were you looking at a book of airplanes?”

Me: “Yes sir I was. I’m a musician for money, but for fun I study old aircraft and build models of them, and the book I was reading was of Polish Aircraft from 1946.”

Policeman: “Would you please go get that book so that i can see it?”

I go back onto the plane — all eyes are on me like I was a common criminal. Total humiliation part 2.

After a couple of minutes he says, “Why, this is all Snoopy Red Baron stuff…”

Me: “Yes sir, actually the triplane you see is Italian, from 1921 a little after World War 1….”

Policeman: “No problem here then, you can go on back on to the plane, sorry to inconvenience you….and have a nice flight.”

We were now at least, after re-queuing, over an hour late. No one looked me in the eye, flight attendants, passengers. I missed my next connection, and had to cancel that portion of the flight… rent a car ($270) plus fuel ($30) to my work (lost 1/2 wages = $100), and I was afraid to read for the next two flights…

What’s my take-away from this experience as a taxpayer, United Airlines patron, Black Man, teacher, mentor, American? I was brokenhearted and speechless as I overheard my friend’s wife try to explain to her kids what happened and what he and I were talking about over dinner. They never did get why.

Racial Profiling First Hand [Vancegilbert.com]