Flying while anybody through Vegas

As you can tell from the meetups I will be attending, I’ll be doing a fair amount of flying in the next month (not as much as Vinod, but nobody flies as much as 3V). You can see why I read the following news story with some trepidation [via BoingBoing]:

No, that’s not me but we all look alike :)

Some federal air marshals say they’re reporting your actions to meet a quota, even though some top officials deny it. The air marshals, whose identities are being concealed, told 7NEWS that they’re required to submit at least one report a month. If they don’t, there’s no raise, no bonus, no awards and no special assignments.

“Innocent passengers are being entered into an international intelligence database as suspicious persons, acting in a suspicious manner on an aircraft … and they did nothing wrong,” said one federal air marshal. [Link]


p>Luckily, I’m not flying through Vegas, which is where this system is in place. It seems that what happens in Vegas stays … in homeland security databases. And even things that don’t happen at all make it there too.


p>I have no information about whether or not similar quotas systems have been implemented in other airports. In Vegas at least, top management issued a memo in July 2004 saying:

“Each federal air marshal is now expected to generate at least one SDR per month”… A second management memo, also dated July 2004, said, “There may come an occasion when you just don’t see anything out of the ordinary for a month at a time, but I’m sure that if you are looking for it, you’ll see something.” [Link]




p>An SDR is a “Surveillance Detection Report,” a secret government document with some very serious consequences.

What kind of impact would it have for a flying individual to be named in an SDR? “That could have serious impact … They could be placed on a watch list. They could wind up on databases that identify them as potential terrorists or a threat to an aircraft. It could be very serious,” [Link]


p>Hmmmm … imagine you’re a Marshal, under serious pressure to say you observed something fishy. Who do you think you’d write up? A white grandmother? A congressional staffer? Or a swarthy young male with a beard, even if he’s really handsome ?


p> Vegas officials deny that such a system is in place, but Vegas Air Marshals confirm that it is.

The director of the Air Marshal Service, Dana Brown, declined 7NEWS’ request for an interview on the quota system. But the agency points to a memo from August 2004 that said there is not a quota for submitting SDRs and which goes on to say, “I do not expect reports that are inaccurate or frivolous.”

But, Las Vegas-based air marshals say the quota system remains in force, now more than two years after managers sent the original memos, and that it’s a mandate from management that impacts annual raises, bonuses, awards and special assignments. [Link]


p>Why should you care if you’re a white grandmother? Because these practices degrade the efficacy of the system:

Strange and other air marshals said the quota allows the government to fill a database with bad information…. “Well, it’s intelligence information, and like any system, if you put garbage in, you get garbage out,” [Link]


p>In other words, the more fake reports are filed, the harder it is to find real threats.


p>BTW – one thing you don’t want to do at an airport? Take a photograph, no matter how innocuous. That’s the sort of thing that Marshals will seize on when trying to fill their quota:

One example, according to air marshals, occurred on one flight leaving Las Vegas, when an unknowing passenger, most likely a tourist, was identified in an SDR for doing nothing more than taking a photo of the Las Vegas skyline as his plane rolled down the runway. [Link]



This is useful information as I just purchased my first digital camera. I had been waiting ever since 9/11 for the security climate to cool down before I bought one, because I didn’t want to have to deal with a photographing while brown type of incident. Finally, five years later, I realized that I didn’t want to wait any more but I’m still going to have to be very very careful.

Related posts: Fear of flying, Not only can I not take photos, but you can’t even stand near me with a camera, Rashomon on the plane

31 thoughts on “Flying while anybody through Vegas

  1. Speaking of t-shirts, the dude who makes these shirts came to last night’s mini-meetup. There seems to be some overlap with the Rootsgear themes — no big surprise there, I suppose.

  2. Looks like I’m going to pay for my white buddy’s grandma to take my tourist photos for me…a great idea for a business opportunity?

  3. Not surprising… the policy is probably put in place by the same geniuses who make the air marshals wear khakis and a sports jacket to “blend in” with passengers.

  4. Just after 9-11, I noticed the following. When I flew with my wife, I was waved right through security. When I flew alone, I was subjected to the full body cavity search. When will the gummint stop harrassing its own citizens and focus on Bin Laden and the real terrorists?

  5. The last time I flew was the vegas and I have a long international trip coming. Thanks for the info, now I can get the airport a day before my flight.

    I also remember reading an article a year or so ago about how air marshals were so well dressed (in coach) that passengers were able to spot them. Then the agencies decide to relax their policy on dress code.

  6. I know it makes total sense to think that us browns would be picked out to meet some security quota, but I live in Vegas, and fly in and out a respectable amount, at least 6-10 times a year for the last three years, and I have not ever had a problem. I’ve even done really stupid things, like leave a lighter in my backpack, or set off the metal detectors with gum foil in my pocket. They didn’t really care, just asked if I wanted to keep the item and when I tell told them no they threw it away. Haha and I have to admit, I’m pretty shady looking shaved head, big nose, bushy eye brows, 6 feet tall

  7. Hot shirt. I’m going to get one for hubby. Even though I’ve probably been “randomly” searched more than he has.

    By the way – what do you think it takes to get off the list? I had the SSS on my tickets for a few years and was always searched but that hasn’t happened for a while now.

  8. the way out will be to fly with your girl friend/wife… it works even in india…if you are travelling by car at 2 a.m. the cops dont stop you if you have a lady with you.

  9. the way out will be to fly with your girl friend/wife… it works even in india…if you are travelling by car at 2 a.m. the cops dont stop you if you have a lady with you.


  10. :if you are travelling by car at 2 a.m. the cops dont stop you if you have a lady with you.

    Actually, should’t they stop if you have a “lady” in the car at 2am??

  11. well the first thing the cops in mumbai wud do at 2 am if they see you with a girl is stop you .. question you about what u’ve been doing, where had u been, where wll u be going, and so on …… all they think is if there’s a guy wid a girl at 2 am, something’s fishy !! what a crude mentality !!

  12. hmmm… a little sensitive, are we.

    Just not my cup of tea.

    to be lamenting woe is me


    So with a wet noodle, whip me.

    Or it could be.

    i am just testy

    that the sporty T

    has another sporting bhindrandwale the cray-zee

    who first defiled the golden temple, did he.

    yours truly,


  13. hmmm… a little sensitive, are we. Just not my cup of tea. to be lamenting woe is me perpetually. So with a wet noodle, whip me.

    Hairy D,

    Why is it “woe is me” to speak out against poorly conceived security policies? It’s a bizarre critique to say that any criticism is necessarily a whiny complaint. Do you believe that a robust democracy is somehow tacky?

    As for Bhindrawale, let’s not go off topic here. That’s not the shirt I used in the story, and even the t-shirt pictured is only losely connected to the news being reported.

    Honestly, it sounds like you’re the one looking for something to whinge about.

  14. ennis…

    i think the T-shirt takes a passive aggressive stance, and that is not manly. it’s embarassing to me.

    aside – i shouldnt have gone off-topic on JSB. I promise not to go down that thread should someone try to sound me.

  15. Your beef is with the t-shirt? That was not clear at all in your earlier comment.

    YMMV w.r.t. the T. I think it’s in-your-face rather than passive aggressive. I see it as confronting the viewer, and doing it with a smile.

    Out of curiousity, are you in the US? Have you ever had to deal with this?

  16. and yes, ennis, your article was informative and very relevant. no issues there. the photo just distracted me and i meandered over a cuppa chai.

    just so you know – on one transatlantic flight over I was moved over from row 1B to row 6B by a somewhat smarmy attendant with a vague excuse – i moved and it didnt register to me why i was asked to do so, until i found the other two attendants sort of overcompensating with chocolates, pillows, mags, etc – so… the takeaway is that for every jerk out there who sees spooks in the mist, there are two (and more) who will know better. Well maybe not. But I sleep better.

  17. Out of curiousity, are you in the US? Have you ever had to deal with this?

    oh.. missed that.

    no. but i travel in and out from Canuckstan. do i have to deal with it… ? probably not as much as you – but i’ve had my share. do i get bitter? yes, sometimes. but i detox thru assertive habitation – probably the way you do in NY. I will not say the system is stacked against me, because that says I am not part of the system or that I have been beaten.

  18. Not to be dimissive, but you really haven’t had the pleasure of the full experience.

    When it happened to me, it didn’t make me sleep any easier because they didn’t stop a single white passenger getting on the plane, just the 5 brown ones. It made me quite nervous that they weren’t checking the others. People I know have died from airplane terrorism, so it bothers me when airline security is so completely lax.

    [I later found out that this was the period when the federal government had been warned about a possible terrorist attack by South East Asian terrorists, so airplane "security" had entirely profiled the wrong group]

    The shirt is a tongue in cheek approach to something which is both more vexing and more significant. Read the link at the bottom of my post, the one called “Fear of Flying” – you’ll see how extreme things can get.

  19. you really haven’t had the pleasure of the full experience

    agreed. i have had some unpleasant experiences but definitely not to the extent you have.

    btw – i did read that link on your blog.

    dont get me wrong. i just feel that T suggests there is no hope, like a dog turning up its belly to show it’s given up – please be merciful.

    ah.. all this over a T! Let me not subvert your topic any more. i’d be curious what the gorgeous Ms K’s husband thinks of it.

  20. not to really get into a match on this – but in one gig when i had to fly in and out of a city in the tornado alley – i had this fat guy who would pick me every time for a ‘random’ pat-down search. it’s the grossest thing in the world to have a large man using his palms to feel my back – breathing down heavily – and i could feel his belly close to me -… i know he was a perv and got off on this. and i would clench my teeth and knot up.. wake up at night with my teeth grinding. i would sometimes watch from the corner of my eye at this guy’s female peer – and her look would say it all – that this wasnt right. sometimes when she was free, she would get to me first and just use the wand to send me on my way.

    but how about that… i’m still standing and kicking. that schmuck’s probably breathing out of a tube, dragging his oxygen cylinder from one kfc to another right now.

    there we go. i feel better now.

  21. Based on extensive research, I would have to disagree that Rootsgear is unoriginal or “overlapping’ in themes. if anything, Rootsgear’s originiality shouldn’t even be a question, but i wouldn’t be surprised if certain other groups try to copy the style.

    It is a rather amazing style.

  22. i had this fat guy who would pick me every time for a ‘random’ pat-down search.

    He needs to be added to this lineup…

  23. YMMV w.r.t. the T. I think it’s in-your-face rather than passive aggressive. I see it as confronting the viewer, and doing it with a smile.

    I guess it depends on one’s perspective because to me it reads like a victim’s statement (i.e. I was violated here, here, here, here and here), and not a finger-in-the-face. Maybe if it said something like “Don’t forget to check my ass” or “In my country they don’t allow random search & seizure”…

  24. i’m a sardar. grew up and went to school in the midwest. went through a whole lot more grief than any sikh friends who grew up on the coasts, where there are actually other sikhs in a 50 mile radius (i exaggerate…but, not by much). and i’ve flown at least once every 2-3 months since 9/11.

    i dislike the shirt because i agree it is of “whiny” in nature. i think it is kind of amusing if i were to wear it around friends or as a joke…but, i’d never wear it in public. i think it makes a wearer somewhat unapproachable if anyone were ever curious about what it is to be a Sikh – it is lambasting ignorance to an audience that is most likely ignorant, and most people won’t get the joke. it’s a little more constructive to just be chill and “normal” than confrontationally “in your face” if you truly want to make a statement or work on winning people over.

    and, after reading Ennis’s comments and talking to friends, i may be in the minority – i’ve never had any real problems at an airport….ever. one time, when i was wearing a stocking hat rather than the turban, i was very briefly questioned by an undercover air marshall when i came off a flight about where i was flying from(it took all of 5 seconds). and another time they picked my bag to swab and test for explosives when i was standing at the ticket counter. and that’s it. In early 2002, i even had two pairs of scissors in my carry-on (don’t ask) flying out of Columbus, and i joked about my stupidity with the security peeps and national guardsman who was standing with an M-16, and they waved me through after confiscating the scissors. meanwhile, my very white friend standing behind me was randomly searched.

  25. continued…

    i acutally find that wearing the turban is to my benefit. most airport people, by this time, have seen enough sikhs and have been educated by their supervisors as to who we are and that we’re not really a “threat.” i think they even overcompensate, not searching or questioning us lest they have some sort of complaint lodged against them. wearing my turban is a clear indication that i am a sikh rather than when wearing a baseball or stocking hat when i may be confused for a muslim or a damn dirty hippy. i am polite, smile a lot, wear casual clothing and make sure to say a few words so they know i don’t have an accent. passengers aren’t nearly as friendly, and most people stare pretty intently as i board. but, i always try to make conversation with those sitting next to me, and speak loudly enough so others around can hear my midwestern twang in an effort to ease their silly and unfounded fears.

  26. and last…

    maybe it’s sad that i have to do these things. maybe it’s sad that i even have to think about these things. but, it’s the reality of the situation, and that’s how i deal with it. it is pretty annoying at times, but not nearly as annoying as being harassed and searched by security and dealing with the constant suspicion of fellow passengers.

    SORRY this isnt in one post. it took me about half an hour to realize that the word RET*RDED isnt allowed in posts…so, i was going paragraph by paragraph trying to find the word that was getting my post blocked.