LOL, you're under arrest.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Is United Airlines as Safe as Its Passengers?

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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There are few quicker routes to being arrested at the airport than dropping a joke on the security screeners about the bomb you’re carrying in your laptop bag. Still, it happens more often than you might expect, as documented on the Transportation Security Administration's blog, a compendium of travel tips and wrongdoing.

On Nov. 21, for example, the agency ran its week-in-review post -- “40 Loaded Firearms, 92 Pounds of Marijuana, Explosives Training Kit & More”-- and added this rather representative anecdote:

A San Francisco (SFO) traveler stated to a nearby U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, "I have a bomb." His statement led to a one-hour delay that affected 358 passengers and 20 crew members. He didn’t have a bomb, but he was arrested by law enforcement on a state charge.

Of course, it didn’t have to be that way. The TSA could have pulled the man aside for a strip search, ordered his luggage offloaded from the plane for inspection, and then -- if he cleared -- allowed him to board, with only a modest delay for the plane.

But they didn’t. In a post-Sept. 11 world, threats against airlines are real and recurrent, passengers are edgy, and false alarms divert valuable security resources away from monitoring for actual threats. TSA security might annoy me on occasion, but if I’d been on that San Francisco flight, I would have had a fit if they’d allowed the bomb joker to board. If he’s willing to joke about explosives, who knows what he might do once we’re airborne?

This brings me to the troubling case of 13 United Airlines flight attendants who were fired in October for refusing to work a San Francisco-to-Hong Kong flight they believed had not been subjected to a proper security screening. On Tuesday, their lawyers filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, demanding the restoration of their jobs, back pay and compensatory damages.

If the standard for airline security at all levels is no tolerance for nonsense, as it should be, they should get what they request. More broadly, though, the incident raises the question of whether or not airlines consistently hold themselves to the same standards that the TSA holds their passengers to.

The incident in question took place on July 14 at San Francisco International Airport. While performing a preflight examination of the 747-400’s exterior, the flight’s first officer noticed that someone had traced the words “BYE BYE” and two mischievous smiley faces -- one of them “devilish” according to the flight attendants’ complaint -- into the oil covering the plane’s tail cone. The first officer then returned to the cabin and consulted with the pilot about the graffiti. In passing, he mentioned to one of the flight attendants that he’d seen a “disturbing image” on the underside of the plane.

Source: Katz, Marshall & Banks LLP via Bloomberg

It’s important to note that it wasn’t just the words and imagery that were disturbing but rather their placement. The tail cone is roughly 30 feet off the ground, and accessing it requires security authorization and equipment. Somewhere, in San Francisco or Seoul, the plane’s last embarkation point, a security sweep either missed the graffiti or considered it unthreatening. However, in the eyes of the experienced pilot and first officer, it most certainly wasn’t, and they called in maintenance and then more senior members of United Airlines staff. 

The flight attendants’ complaint is riveting reading, as well as a disturbing indictment of United. When the maintenance supervisor arrived, for example, he gave the graffiti “a cursory glance,” asking “what’s the problem?” and then simply walking away. The only inspection made was of the auxiliary power unit encased in the nose cone. When the flight attendants demanded a full-on security sweep of the plane, including a deplaning by all passengers, the request was refused.

The pilot, apparently satisfied by the simple inspection, now called the graffiti a “one-off joke,” according to the complaint. But the flight attendants didn’t share his mirth and chose not to fly, thereby forcing the cancellation of the flight. Two months later, they were fired.

These are not rookie flight attendants. Collectively, they have “over 299 years” of flying experience. In other words: They’ve seen all the skies have to offer. Did they overreact to a cartoon? Only if you believe that the TSA overreacts when it bars someone from boarding a plane after joking about carrying a bomb. In each case -- the bomb joke and the cartoon -- odds are that there’s nothing wrong.

But in the case of the United flight, those odds could have been easily lowered in safety’s favor. Why weren’t they? In a statement, the airlines claims that it made a “comprehensive safety sweep prior to boarding.” It did not address concerns, however, that the sweep was inadequate, or that its pilots and San Francisco management were willing to brush off crew concerns about a safety-related joke. That’s a dangerous double-standard that United -- and the agencies that regulate it -- need to address.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net