It was during the boarding process on a flight from Fort Lauderdale to JFK in the fall of 2009. I had long since learned the key to a pleasant flight was to greet everyone as they boarded, so I stood in the front galley and said my hellos.
Suddenly a middle-aged white woman leaned uncomfortably close to me and whispered, “There is man, four people behind me, in a green shirt, who is very suspicious.”
I whispered back, “OK. What’s he doing?”
“You’ll see,” she said, wide-eyed.
I thought two things: This woman is probably racist. And I need to take her seriously.
As a former flight attendant for a major carrier, I’m not surprised to hear that a Southwest Airlines passenger reported UC Berkeley student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi as suspicious after he said “Inshallah” (“God willing” in Arabic) during a phone call. Flight attendants are often made to play referee when hundreds of humans with wildly different life experiences are crammed into an aircraft cabin.
It’s usually simple stuff, like moving the man with the severe dog allergy as far away as possible from the blind woman’s service animal. Or asking the bachelor party to pipe down for the umpteenth time, because not everyone is going to Las Vegas to get drunk.
But sometimes you’re asked to be someone’s accomplice — in their racism, their homophobia, their cruel joke about the larger person seated next to them or their conviction that the mother in front of them should drug her child to shut him up. For professionals who are supposed to be polite, it can get awkward.
On the Southwest flight, Makhzoomi, after boarding and taking his seat, phoned an uncle and was speaking to him in Arabic. He told The Washington Post that he cut the call short after noticing that the woman seated in front of him had turned to stare. She left her seat, and soon afterward a Southwest employee told him he had to get off the plane. Makhzoomi complied. After being questioned by police officers and FBI agents, he eventually was released but was told he could not fly Southwest. He arrived home, he said, nine hours after his initial arrival time, on Delta Air Lines.
Since Southwest has declined to explain its perspective, we have only Makhzoomi’s account of what happened to go on. But if it’s true that the flight attendant had no other interaction with him from the time the other passenger reported him to the time he was pulled off the plane – well, that shocks me.
Flight attendants are trained extensively in evaluating suspicious behavior with videos, checklists, quizzes and drills. (And drills and drills and drills.) The training infuses you with an automatic paranoid vigilance that follows you forever and insists you take all threats seriously, since the cost of being wrong is too high. But nowhere does it recommend you accept a passenger’s assessment of a situation, and nowhere does it teach that speaking Arabic is cause for suspicion.
Before that 2009 flight, after the woman alerted me to the “suspicious” passenger, I thanked her and told her I’d check him out. I watched the man closely as he stepped onto the plane, looking for signs of a terrorist. Was he jittery? Nope. Was he sweating? A little bit, but we were in South Florida; I was sweating, too. Was he wearing unseasonable clothing, like a big coat in the summertime? No. In fact, his Green Bay Packers jersey perfectly fit the season — football season.
Did he have trouble following a normal conversation?
“Hi, how’re you doing today?” I asked.
“Fine,” he said, nodding casually.
“Going home?” I asked.
“Nope, wedding,” he said.
All right, no problems there.
A few minutes later, after he’d reached his seat, I walked down the aisle to assess again, the woman who flagged him tracking me with her eyes.
Did he hold on tightly to a piece of luggage? No, his carry-on was in the overhead bin. Did he sit stiffly? No, he was slouched in his seat, headphones on, already watching the game on the seatback TV. Not exactly the actions of person who believes he’s about to die.
The only thing he appeared to have in common with the 9/11 hijackers was that he was brown. He could have been Punjabi or Puerto Rican. He could have been Catholic, or Sikh, or one of the many hundreds of millions of Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism. I let it go and had no further discussion with the man or the woman, other than to serve them drinks and bid them well when they disembarked at JFK. I hope, and I think it’s likely, that the man never noticed what was happening.
I grew up in a wealthy, mostly white, mostly Mormon town out West. Respect for God’s will for us was a frequent topic of conversation among my friends. And, like lots of future pilots and flight attendants, my favorite toy was the globe. I’d spin and spin it, dreaming of all the different, “exotic” places I’d go. Becoming a flight attendant made my dreams come true. That has included travel to Muslim-majority countries, where the frequent incantation of “God willing” quite frankly reminds me of home.
Southwest has a reputation for friendly customer service. I know Southwest flight attendants, and even in the relative privacy of their Facebook feeds, they talk of genuinely loving their passengers and the work they do to keep them safe and comfortable.
When passengers reported an issue, we didn’t know what their life experience was. That’s why it was so important that we made assessments based on training. In this case, being friendly and being vigilant should have called for the same thing: a conversation. Anyone who makes a snap judgment from the cocoon of the galley has no business being a flight attendant.
– Gillian Brockell is a video editor at The Washington Post.