Economist Removed from American Airlines Flight for Doing Math

Guido Menzio, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, was pulled off of an American Airlines regional jet from Philadelphia to Syracuse because he was doing math.

Flight from Philly to Syracuse goes out on the tarmac, ready to take off. The passenger sitting next to me calls the stewardess, passes her a note. The stewardess comes back asks her if she is comfortable taking off, or she is too sick. We wait more. We go back to the gate. The passenger exits. We wait more. The pilot comes to me and asks me out of the plane. There I am met by some FBI looking man-in-black. They ask me about my neighbor. I tell them I noticed nothing strange. They tell me she thought I was a terrorist because I was writing strange things on a pad of paper. I laugh. I bring them back to the plane. I showed them my math.

It’s a bit funny. It’s a bit worrisome. The lady just looked at me, looked at my writing of mysterious formulae, and concluded I was up to no good. Because of that an entire flight was delayed by 1.5 hours.

I’d note that this is an hour and a half delay on a flight that’s scheduled at 1 hour 5 to 1 hour 21 minutes. It’s fortunate for him that he was ultimately allowed to fly. Frequently passengers that are removed are put on later flights even when there’s nothing of real concern.

This just underscores the idiocy of “see something, say something.” As Bruce Schneier often says, when you encourage amateurs to do security you get amateur security.

On the other hand as Alex Tabarrok observes, Algebra has “Arabic origins plus math is used to make bombs.”

Update: The Washington Post has more,

And then the big reveal: The woman wasn’t really sick at all! Instead this quick-thinking traveler had Seen Something, and so she had Said Something.

That Something she’d seen had been her seatmate’s cryptic notes, scrawled in a script she didn’t recognize. Maybe it was code, or some foreign lettering, possibly the details of a plot to destroy the dozens of innocent lives aboard American Airlines Flight 3950. She may have felt it her duty to alert the authorities just to be safe. The curly-haired man was, the agent informed him politely, suspected of terrorism.

…The woman never reboarded to the flight, Menzio said. No one told him, though, whether she was barred from returning or stayed away voluntarily, out of embarrassment or continued fear of the “dangerous wizardry” his mathematical notations resembled.

The Post though describes the Philadelphia to Syracuse flight scheduled for a 7:20pm departure as “the first leg of a connecting flight to Ontario” but I’m not sure that makes sense.

The Ontario in question refers to Canada. There’s no Syracuse – Toronto flight that would connect without an overnight. His ultimate destination is described as a university in Kingston, Ontario — which would mean flying through Toronto — or more likely a two hour drive. My guess is that he wasn’t connecting.

Update 2: I’m reminded of this post from 13 years ago.

At Heathrow Airport today, an individual, later discovered to be a school teacher, was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a compass, a protractor, and a graphical calculator.

Authorities believe she is a member of the notorious al-Gebra movement. She is being charged with carrying weapons of math instruction.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. That’s a warning to all the chemists and pharmacologists out there. The redneck uneducated folk don’t take kindly to scientific gobbeldygook on a pad of paper.

  2. After G.W. Bush permanently destroyed our reputation in the world, the modern countries (which doesn’t include us, in terms of quality of life standards rating in the top 50%) began teaching in their schools that the American redneck is the stupidest creature on the planet, absolutely ruinous to civilization. Bush had been their icon. These were originally only about 30% of the population who qualified as willfully ignorant, aided in large part by fundamentalist religion every bit as dangerous as radical Islam. But their stupidity is infectious such that after 9/11 it took over the majority with fears that re-elected the worst President any country ever elected. This horrified the world and changed it’s view of America as heroic. Every drop of blood spilled to save the world in two World Wars had been squandered. We are now considered the dunce country. Witness: Trump.

  3. Wow, this humorous story took a sharp and ugly bigoted and ignorant politcal turn in the comments.

  4. Wow. U scammers that play the miles and points game sure do look down on people not as talented as u. So how’s the hobby working since most of the loopholes have been closed. Oh no!! U may have to pay cash to fly to Cuba!!

  5. Oh, those sorcerers and their math, conjuring up all sorts of scary things… It seems like there were a few people involved before he showed the FBI his notes. I’d hope someone in the chain would ask before it got to that point. Ignorant + Fearful = Embarrassing

  6. @don christner
    we are truly sorry that as a redneck, you are not smart enought “to play the game”
    I’m surprised you can use a computer….

  7. For the record, Greg, the US is 8th in Human Development Index, and still 27th if you adjust for income inequality. So yeah, definitely in the Top 50% and then some

  8. @don christner I think you hurt doug’s feelings. he may have to go hide in his safe space now

  9. Greg shows us all how much smarter he is than everyone else on the planet. Makes me wonder who he’ll vote for in November????

  10. If you can’t recognize mathematical symbols you probably shouldn’t be let out alone.

  11. @marc
    Not at all marc, just commenting on the intelect of a lower being like him
    Jealousy is not healthy….

  12. Why not publish the name of these idiots who make boggling ignorant accusations about supposed terrorists? It’s scandalous that these cretins are able to stay anonymous and suffer no punishment while innocent victims are humiliated and subject to interrogation without any compensation.

    As for Greg, he’s right on the mark about how The Chimp destroyed the US’ reputation and made it a place of derision and scorn for much of the world. It’s a legacy that will take generations to change.

  13. @ Dougie – Hey Dougie, before you pontificate on your smug superiority, learn how to spell “intellect”, of which you’ve assured us you have none.

    Condescension is not healthy, especially when you’re stupid.

  14. She is most likely a Trump supporter. Soon everyone who isn’t white will be accused of being a muslim or an illegal. Flight delays and cancellations will become the norm. I’m going to stick with direct flights so I don’t miss my connections.

  15. Reminds me of an episode in one of the “Wimpy Kid” books where Greg gets for his birthday a “ladybug phone” with only two buttons: “call home” and “call 911”. The problem with telling children to call 911 in an emergency is that they tend not to have a clear concept of what an emergency is.

  16. @MS(NBC)er

    Liar O’Bumbler makes Chimpy McHitler look like a genius, in all 57 states, among all corpsemen, and to all those Austrian-speakers of the world. Maybe after 8 years of a failed Hillary Felon presidency, the DNC Media will finally hold a loser president accountable for performance? Just kidding.

  17. @Dave which reminds me of Steven Wright,

    I got up one morning, couldn’t find my socks, so I called Information. She
    said, “Hello, Information.” I said, “I can’t find my socks.” She said,
    “They’re behind the couch.”

  18. Actually, it was an extreme case of math phobia. The woman reportedly said, “It was my understanding that there would be no math on this flight.”

  19. @hanzo
    Sorry for typo on mobile phone supreme republican leader…..
    I guess being blue collar moron is tough in changing landscape of america

  20. …Then I saw little Tiffany. I’m thinking, y’know, eight-year-old white girl, middle of the ghetto, bunch of monsters, this time of night with quantum physics books? She’s about to start some shit Zed…

  21. Well the passenger who reported this is someone lacking any intellect at all. I mean seriously the guy is doing math. Secondly i think airlines need to do a much better job here. Why does it take that long to determine the guy is doing math? Why does any moron on a plane have the power of delaying an entire flight with their ignorance? I see a passenger writing something strange (without something more) should not have airlines crews reacting this way.

  22. @Dougie – Oh sure, that’s what all moron’s say, “typo”. We believe you.
    Tee hee.
    As for the rest of your drivel …. it’s just that, drivel from a deranged supreme democratic lunatic.

  23. Greg & MSer may be right about the USA’s reputation of being considered the dunce country, but I think there is be more to this story than just Bush or Trump. Current events indicate that America’s “ruling class” is in way over its head and consequently people are lost, confused, and hopelessly in denial.

    Most of today’s headlines remind me of an old story about someone being obsessed with rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. While ISIS chops off heads throughout the Middle-East, the Russian Air Force plays “chicken” with our aircraft, and North Korea and Iran mock the US while they build up their nuclear arsenals. All this goes on while Americans and their “leaders” rail against each other over transgender bathrooms.

  24. Perhaps the lady who “informed” on the economist can be put on the no fly list until she demonstrates mastery of calculus…

  25. Amazing that someone suffering from a paranoid disorder or having a “Trump-er tantrum” could hold a flight, a crew, an airline and security personnel hostage and then take another flight …. We are not doing a very good job with security by catering to the ignorant and bigotry. The USA looks the way it looks and not like the way Trump wants (white and privileged) .

  26. Who runs our public education system? Democrats. Economic morons. Corruptocrats. The corrupt teacher’s union. This is why Americans are idiots. They vote for this idiocracy.

    Only an economic moron who cannot do math would blame GWB. Idiot.

  27. Democratic math. It doesn’t compute. why? There is no math. Only lies and waste.

  28. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. is ranked #28 in math. So, yes, for many of us Americans, mathematics is an alien and frightening concept.

    @Marcus don’t be silly, you can’t force someone to demonstrate a mastery of calculus. That would require a 12th grade education. (Oops, wrong country.)

  29. Yeah, let’s be sure to ridicule this woman for saying something, so the next time real terrorists prepare to kill Americans like in San Bernardino, people will be too cowed to say report anything.

  30. But we were told that if Obama was elected that the whole world (i.e., Western Europe and the Muslim countries) would love us and be our friends. You mean that didn’t work out?

  31. this beats the story about an Israeli traveler taken off a train in Russia for reading a book in Hebrew

  32. That woman needs to see a doctor, immediately. Or at least to stay at home.

  33. The economist has dark curly hair, would she have been as suspicious if he was a blue-eyed blonde? I’m Asian, I guess this means no more helping my son with his math and chemistry homework in public, someone might report us!

  34. Well there’s an assured vote for Donald Trump. We’ll have none of this here book learnin’ stuff!
    Only in America………………….

  35. I suspect she was a resident of a large city, not a redneck. We rednecks use math every damn day to run our farms and ranches. We’ve even been known to use algebra and trigonometry.

    I don’t think people in the big apartment buildings in the sky ever need to use math. They only need to know what floor they live on.

  36. “Differential equations” look more sinister and that is what he was writing.

    In the Washington Post article’s associated photo, they show an early California airplane case of a clean-shaven man, red tie, white shirt and dark suit jacket.

    “On Thursday evening, a 40-year-old man — with dark, curly hair, olive skin and an exotic foreign accent — boarded a plane. It was a regional jet making a short, uneventful hop from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse.”

    And check Mr. Menzio’s UPenn page where he wears a keffiyeh or kufiya around his neck. […also known as a ghutrah (غُترَة), shemagh (شماغ šmāġ), ḥaṭṭah (حَطّة), mashadah (مَشَدة), chafiye (Persian: چَفیِه‎‎) or cemedanî (Kurdish: جه مه داني‎), is a traditional Middle Eastern headdress fashioned from a square scarf, usually made of cotton. It is typically worn by Arabs, Kurds and some Jews.]

    Meanwhile many Americans are carrying vile, dangerous best-sellers from airport bookstores that portray terrorism.

  37. Liberal propaganda for retards. If he did not look suspicious she would have done nothing.
    Thus if he looked like white his writings would make 0 difference.
    I am not surprised how liberal minds accept and create lies and propaganda.
    How easy is to brainwash and be brainwashed.

  38. Well Greg, you can blame Bush all you want, but we’ve had almost eight years of the Light Bringer, who promised to make it all better, but has not only continued every one of Bush’s policies, but increased them. Oh yeah, and blew up Libya, blew up Iraq (after he and Biden proclaimed Iraq his greatest achievement), blew up Syria, “reset” relations with Russia such that we are on worse terms than during the Cold War and continues NSA spying on American citizens after pledging not to. Add in weaponizing the IRS, DoJ and EPA as bludgeons against his political enemies and inflaming race relations.

    Finally, the idiot who Saw Something and Said Something no doubt is a product of the Left’s failed progressive public education system and cannot recognize math after getting her ten-year degree in gender studies.

    Obama could easily have undone it all.

    Yeah, all Bush’s fault.

  39. Economists have contributed more to human misery than any other discipline.
    It is the dismal science for a reason.

  40. In the long run, an academic economist who believes in government intervention in markets will be much more destructive than ISIS.

  41. Doh! Lady…..Theorists put planes in the air….Terrorists bring them down

  42. “After G.W. Bush permanently destroyed our reputation …”

    Who is this Rorschach guy and why do all his inkblots look like Bush?

  43. @Greg is pretty much on the ball ! Sorry guys!
    More on-topic, if the cockpit crew was given the chance to look at the guy’s notebook they would have recognized it as math (what with all that book learnin’ they had to do to fly a plane). How did it escalate to the point it did ?

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