Economics professor escorted off a plane flight after fellow passenger mistook his math equations for terrorist codes

By @chelean on
American Airlines
An American Airlines plane pulls up to a gate at Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, United States June 13, 2015. Reuters/Brian Snyder

A university economist, who has dark and curly hair, olive skin and exotic foreign accent, had been escorted out of a commercial US plane after a fellow passenger complained about him writing cryptic notes, which she thought to be foreign language that could threaten the lives of those aboard. The cryptic notes turned out not to be terrorist codes, but simply math.

Guido Menzio is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has been ethnically profiled during an American Airlines flight 3950 from Philadelphia, US, to the nearby Syracuse last week. And it’s all because someone who didn’t recognise math equations suspected him of plotting terrorism.

As the Washington Post reports, the 40-year-old economist was scribbling differential equations on his notepad about the plane when his seatmate, a blonde woman in her 30s wearing thongs and a red tote back, thought he was up to no good. He was too focused on his scribbles to answer the woman’s questions with anything more than curt one-liners, not really giving her much attention.

Unbeknownst to him, the woman handed a flight attendant a note. The attendant came back a few minutes later to ask the passenger if she felt okay to fly or if she was “too sick.” The woman responded she was okay, but the plane remained on the ground. And instead of taking off, the plane turned around and headed back to the gate. The woman was escorted off, while a crew member told the passengers some excuse as to why they weren’t taking off.

The pilot then approached Menzio and escorted him off the plane as well. Menzio was taken to meet an agent, though the professor could not recall the agent’s affiliation. The agent asked Menzio about his seatmate, to which he answered she acted a bit funny but didn’t seem visibly ill.

The agent then revealed the woman wasn’t sick at all. She was escorted off the plane because she had “Seen Something” and so she had “Said Something.” She was referring to Menzio’s cryptic notes, which were written in a language she didn’t recognise. The passenger perhaps thought the notes were in foreign language that detailed how to destroy the plane. The woman felt it was her duty to alert the authorities of the dark-skinned foreigner’s intentions.

Menzio, who is not Arabic but Italian, laughed after he was informed that the woman got scared of his “foreign” notes. As it turned out, the notes weren’t Arabic or any foreign language. They were just differential equation in math.

He showed the authorities his calculations and was allowed to return to the plane. He told the Washington Post that the pilot seemed embarrassed. The plane made its flight more than two hours after the schedule, while the woman never reboarded the plane.

Menzio, who was awarded the prestigious Carlo Alberto Medal last year, said he was “treated respectfully throughout.” However, he questioned the “broken system that does not collect information efficiently,” bothered by the woman’s ignorance.

“What might prevent an epidemic of paranoia? It is hard not to recognise in this incident, the ethos of [Donald] Trump’s voting base,” he wrote to WaPo.

A spokesman for American Airlines told the paper that when there are conflicts between passengers, the crew “try to work with them peacefully to resolve it.” The rep admitted that incidents in which customers raising similar suspicions that turned out to be false happen “from time to time.”