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. AA is an airline I will never use. Prior experiences have proven any airline provides better services to customers than they do…how ridiculous to take this person off a flight, confiscate the items.

  2. To the maroon above, being a redneck mathematician I take exception to your ignorance.

    Stupid should hurt.

  3. Heh! Reminiscent of the tragic time a paediatrician was killed, in ultra-phobic England, for being a ‘paedo’. Red-necks are everywhere.

  4. The funniest thing I’ve heard all day….only in the USA. BTW @Pedro as retarded as the attack on the pediatrician in Newport was I don’t believe anyone was killed – though the attackers probably should have been euthanized for the sake of humanity

  5. Before you all pile on, yes, I have published professionally in this area.

    I give you an unfortunate fact. Never, not once, in the entire history of airline security in the USA, Africa, or Europe has any “professional security” person ever noticed, averted, seen, or responded to an airline incident. All cases of seeing, noticing, averting, or responding to an airline terrorism incident have been alert passengers. That’s it.

    Fact. When you are in the sky, it is all up to you. Nobody will save you except you. Be alert. Don’t screw around if you see something. Act, and deal with consequences later if you are wrong. If there is a hijacking, kill if necessary and DO NOT hesitate.

  6. The women that reported this man should be billed the cost of time/fuel wasted. She’s ignorant not to know what math looks like. God I hope she doesn’t breed.

  7. @TerrorAnalyst Before 911 US airline security was so lax it was beyond ridiculous; common sense security was all that was needed.
    Your response “If there is a hijacking, kill if necessary and DO NOT hesitate” could have potentially had disastrous consequences on the recent EgyptAir hijack which ended peacefully at Larnaca airport. Thank god you weren’t aboard that flight.

  8. This is a sad state of affairs. Was the woman who reported him a follower of Pamela Gellar, by chance? Or was it Pamela Gellar herself?

  9. As to the speculation in the article about flying from Syracuse to Toronto – flying to a destination in Canada is usually very expensive. The professor, on a budget, may have elected to drive from Suracise to Kingston. I used Buffalo when I travelled to a former client in Ontario.

  10. Too bad the pilot didn’t investigate. A fifteen second conversation would have solved the issue and had everyone on their way.

  11. how much trouble would it have been for the stewardess to just to ask the guy about the stuff he was writing down, just say it looks interesting and you are curious. Then if his response seems suspicious, only then do you something.

  12. By the way ralph, very cheap shot on Gellar. Wanting to draw mohammed is not the same as screwing up and falsely reporting a terrorist.

  13. It’s very likely the numbers this economist was scribbling down in his math calculations were “Arabic” numerals, so I could see her point in being so frightened by them. (Not really.)

    The ironic thing is, the characters that frightened this woman so much were probably Greek: Lambda, Delta, Epsilon, Omega, and so forth.

  14. I have been saying for years now that the American people are getting more ignorant every year. Anyone who has read this story and found any sense in it, is as ignorant, as the woman who could not identify a math equation irrespective of the use of foreign symbols. Furthermore, since when did it become mandatory that we visit with our seat mates on a plane, train etc. Do we as Americans no longer have the right to be private citizens? Perhaps this educated man was able to see that the woman sitting next to him trying to have ridiculous small talk, obviously just stepped out of the trailer park and worse yet, he was worried that he might catch the highly communicable disease; “TO STUPID TO LIVE SYNDROME”, as it is quite apparent she suffers from the disease! After all, planes have been known to be a cesspool of germs and nothing demonstrates the contagious nature of this disease than what happened in a very short time span. the airline attendant, the pilot, and the security all exposed to the woman suddenly developed “TO STUPID TO LIVE SYNDROME” as well.

    Another example of; you can take the dumb blonde out of the trailer park, but you will never be able take the dumb out of the blonde!

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