Passenger profiling and rights

The US Transportation Security Administration is now requiring 180 airlines flying to the US to enhance security by initiating passenger interviews.

Passengers sitting inside an airplane [illustrative] (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Passengers sitting inside an airplane [illustrative]
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
You’ve purchased your ticket, arranged your rental car reservation, confirmed your hotel booking, arranged travel insurance and verified your passport is valid. You arrived at the airport in plenty of time to navigate any and all security screening roadblocks. The recent announcement that a number of airlines operating to the US will be implementing new security measures for US-bound flights may give you pause. The US Transportation Security Administration is now requiring 180 airlines flying to the US to enhance security by initiating passenger interviews.
My initial reaction was it was about time. My second reaction is: Why only flights that enter the United States? Color me concerned but when Saudi Arabian Airlines departs from JFK nonstop to Riyadh, I damn well would like passengers boarding the plane to be interviewed. What is the fallacy that terrorists will only try to hijack a plane that is entering the US? Whether the plane is flying from London to Los Angeles or from Los Angeles to London, TSA should instruct airlines to interview passengers.
In our politically correct culture, how we describe this process must be handled with the gentlest of terms. Far be it from TSA to call a spade a spade and accept the norm of Israel’s passenger profiling. Israeli security has been adamant in the use of profiling to recognize airplane passengers who may threaten the safety of the flight. Behavioral experts are highly trained in reading body language to pick up on the signs of potential nervousness or unusual behavior; the process does not rely on the appearance of the individual. It simply picks up on passengers’ behavioral patterns.
It is argued, however, that terrorists are able to probe the security system to determine which members of their group fall into the low-risk passenger profiling categories. In the future these members could be used to pass unchallenged through security checks. Convincing the public that the advantages of passenger profiling outweigh the disadvantages is no longer proving to be a challenging task. The nature of this process means that it is only when things go wrong and people do slip through the net that we will truly understand if it is working or not.
The disadvantages of passenger profiling, including concerns about stereotyping, have until recently prevented the process from gaining widespread use. In fact, Israeli security teams use racial profiling when identifying suspects. To Israelis, the practice of picking people out based on racial stereotypes is so self-evident it doesn’t even warrant a debate. And though some security experts and commentators have advocated adopting racial profiling, the general consensus is this mandate will not subject passengers with certain shades of pigmentation and names germane to a specific part of the world to more rigorous searches.
Israeli security doesn’t just operate out of Israel’s airports; they exist at every airport in the world that has nonstop flights to Israel. So whether you’re boarding a plane in Miami or Bangkok, odds are quite high you’ll be asked this innocuous question: “Why are you traveling to Israel?”
We have restrictions on liquids, aerosols and gels to limit potentially dangerous items. We have scanners and sniffers and X-ray machines that all appear quite sophisticated. This paradigm shift of focusing on individuals rather than items is the right approach.
In addition to racial profiling, there is also the use of predictive profiling. Predictive profiling offers a unique approach to threat mitigation, which begins from the point of view of the aggressor/adversary and is based on the actual adversary’s methods of operation, their modus operandi.
In predictive profiling, one uses only the operational profile (not racial or statistical profile) of a terrorist or criminal as the basis for identifying suspicion indicators in a protected environment. When predictively profiling a situation, person or object, one identifies suspicion indicators that correlate with an adversary’s method of operation. For example, if a security officer observes a person walking with an empty suitcase in an airport (the suitcase appears very light; it bounces off the floor) he may identify this suspicious behavior as an indication of a possible terrorist or criminal method of operation because:
A. The person may be involved in surveillance activities (the suitcase is only a prop to fit the airport environment);
B. The person has dropped a bomb somewhere in the airport and is now exiting.
Predictive profiling differs from racial profiling, which uses race and ethnicity as the only factors against which to evaluate potential threat. Keep in mind that in tandem it is not a foolproof method. Using suspicion indicators only strengthens the process. These indicators are derived from any aspect that relates to what we broadly term behavior. This would include among other things attire, accent, affect, identity both as reflected in an individual’s documentation and by whom they say they are, i.e. their cover story.
Risk is measurable, it has levels. For example, car insurance premiums are calculated based on measurable, past events. Threat, on the other hand, is not measurable. It either exists, or it doesn’t. This is why the Homeland Security Alert System, a color-coded terrorism threat advisory scale, that many countries have adopted is not really meaningful. Following this logic, the goal of profiling is to determine whether or not a person, object or situation represents a real threat. The logic of predictive profiling continues insofar as our security efforts are confined to real threats versus a larger, random sampling of threats in the form of people or objects.
Why, for example, should we waste time screening everyone, or a random sampling of a larger set, when we could rather focus our attention on those suspicion indicators that reflect actual, potential threat? The methodology is based primarily on methods used by El Al Israel Airlines, and other Israeli security agencies.
Nonetheless, you’ve now been deemed as no threat, have traversed successfully the duty free shops, dipped your toes in the airline lounges and are now ready to plop yourself down in a far too tight seat in an aircraft that for the most part assumes nobody cares anymore about creature comforts. In the back of your mind you remember there’s been a rash of passenger expulsions yet your memory eludes the specifics.
In most of the incidents the removed passenger was found not to be doing anything wrong. The media loves to report on passenger expulsions when based on unruly passenger incidents. In fact, it’s more often reported as air rage, and keep in mind, crew members are under no obligation to report an expulsion. Almost all aviation regulations state that “no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.” Generally, flight crews interpret that as giving them the right to remove any passenger for almost any reason.
And they have. In addition to the perceived security threats, passengers claim they have been removed for suffering peanut allergies, trying to carry an oxygen tank, and, allegedly, for being Jewish. It was an EasyJet flight from Barcelona to Paris in 2016 that initial reports stating it discriminated against Jewish passengers accused of rowdy behavior that caused a delay. The EasyJet agent strongly denied the allegation, saying the passengers were taken by police for questioning due to their disruptive behavior.
Typically, once a crew member makes a decision to kick a passenger off a flight, the rest of the crew closes ranks. There are no formal avenues for appeal. Flight crews virtually always support a decision to remove a passenger, even when they don’t have all the facts, so experts say the best advice is to comply immediately – but ask for compensation. Technically, a removal is considered an “involuntary denied boarding” situation. So no matter what happens next, you are entitled to compensation.
If the removal is a simple misunderstanding, then it isn’t unreasonable to expect an apology from the airline and for the carrier to take care of any expenses incurred while you wait at the airport. It’s usually difficult to build a legal case against an airline because of the broad discretion under international law given to the airlines to eject passengers. There is a customer service aspect to it as well and most certainly you can attempt to negotiate with the airline for a flight voucher or other reasonable compensation for the misunderstanding. Does it help if someone has videoed you being dragged down an aisle of the airline begging for someone to intervene? Ask Dr. Dao who United gave a million dollar settlement after his incident went viral.
Conversely if you seek out attention, thrive in engaging people in power and desire both physical and verbal interactions just follow these tips:
1. You are the most important person in the airport. Actually, you’re the most important person that has ever lived. This gives you complete license to behave in ways that outside the airport are seen as rude, abrasive, arrogant and completely unacceptable.
2. Queuing is more of a guideline than a rule.
In airports, queuing doesn’t really apply. If you happen to find yourself in a line, tut loudly and ensure everyone around you knows exactly how annoyed you are at having to line up.
3. Act as if security is ruining your life.
When you arrive at security, don’t do what they ask. Don’t remove your coat, belt and shoes and don’t put your phone, laptop and metals in the tray provided. Just don’t. As you hold up everyone behind you; when you get asked to do the aforementioned things, exhale loudly and act as if you have just been accused of international terrorism. When placing liquids into small plastic bags, ensure they’re all over the permitted limit and then loudly complain about the “bureaucratic insanity” this ordeal is.
4. When you’re called to the gate, engage rule one immediately.
When you’re at your gate, don’t take a seat and wait patiently until you’re called to board. Stand at the desk and force a smug, self-righteous smile. You standing there will inspire everybody else to think that they aren’t going to get a seat on the aircraft. Before you know it, your behavior will have encouraged the entire plane to stand up and queue for the next hour. You are doing an excellent service.
5. Holding everyone behind you up is vital to your happiness.
Do not follow instructions and have appropriate documents ready to display. Actually make sure they are at the bottom of your bag.
On the plane:
Behave like a total boor. Where possible, behave as inappropriately as you can. Speak loudly so everyone can hear you through the duration of the flight. Complain about the lack of leg room by kicking the seat in front of you. Criticize the price of drinks and the fact your two-hour flight doesn’t come with an in-flight meal. If, by chance you do have an in-flight meal ensure everyone knows that you hate airline food and it tastes like dog food.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.
For questions and comments email him at