Sunday, November 22, 2015

Airlines must find line between security and profiling | Editorial

By South Jersey Times Editorial Board 
on November 22, 2015 at 8:27 AM
updated November 22, 2015 at 8:28 AM

There isn't much about air travel these days to make passengers feel comfortable. Wide fannies are crammed into skinny seats. Legroom keeps vanishing, since jamming more rows into each plane means more profit for the airlines.

The carriers' general feeling seems to be: "You want comfort? Charter your own plane. Can't afford that? Shut up and be happy. By the way, that'll be $5 for that half-can of Coke." 

So, why would airlines bend over backwards to ensure a comfort zone for customers who don't like that some their fellow fliers speak to each other in Arabic?

The incident in question involves a pizza shop owner and his friend headed back to Philadelphia after a visit to family in Chicago. According to a report on NBC10, Mahir Kahlil and friend Anas Ayyad say they were prevented at the gate from boarding their scheduled Southwest flight because another passenger who heard them talking in Arabic was uncomfortable taking the same flight.

The Palestinian-born shop owners consider this to be "profiling," although the men were eventually allowed to board. But, that wasn't until after Kahlil called 911, and police arrived to question the pair.

Since when does one jittery English-speaking passenger get to say who may board who may not? 

In a time of ISIS attacks on Paris, and on a Russian airliner, no one wants to step on good citizens' renewed resolve to practice a sensible "see-something, say-something" mentality. No quarrel here with the "uncomfortable" passenger for speaking up.

It's the airline's response that should get more scrutiny. One at the gate, and absent any specific suspicious behavior, Arabic-speaking passengers have been vetted through the airline's security, federal watch lists and the Transportation Security Administration's physical airport screening.

That's exactly what the Southwest gate agents should have told the questioning passenger. (As in, "Thanks for your concern, but ..." ) Why on earth should it take  police intervention to interview Kahlil and Ayyad — probably not for the first time as air travelers — and reinforce their right to board?

According to the WCAU-TV report, Southwest issued a fuzzy response stating that "passenger safety" was important to the airline, and that the boarding delay lasted only 10 minutes. But the same thing happened last week to Arabic-speaking passengers on a Southwest flight to Houston. Four Arabic-speaking passengers were actually booted off of a Spirit flight in Baltimore. Those incidents, though, involved activity that raised concern: a loud seating dispute in one case; a mistaken report about viewing an ISIS video in the other.

Even Israel doesn't hassle its residents based on Arabic alone. How could it? More than 20 percent of Israel's population speaks the language. 

Let's be vigilant in these scary times, but let's stay sensible enough to know the difference between legitimate security and profiling.

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