Racial Profiling and Idiots in the Air

This is Vance Gilbert, a fine American musician and singer.  Two weeks ago, while flying with United Airlines, Gilbert fell foul of a power-tripping air-waitress who decided that the book he was reading on the history of 1940s Polish aircraft made him a terrorist.


Gilbert was removed from the aircraft, interrogated and humiliated.

He believes it happened because he’s a black man, though I have a feeling it’s more to do with the effect uniforms have on idiots.  We’ve seen too many examples recently of air-waitresses calling the police after customers complained about poor service.  We saw an example here in Ireland recently where a man was arrested for complaining about a sandwich after a stewardess misused security procedures to get petty revenge on him.

Anyway, here’s his story, which I’ve taken the liberty of lifting in its entirety from his website.  I’m sure he won’t mind.


To Whom It May Concern,

My name is Vance Gilbert.

I live in Arlington, MA.

I am a homeowner, having been here 10+ years, I have a partner, and we have two 52lb Standard Poodles.

I am a 6 foot tall, bespectacled, slightly greying, 52 year old, 230 lb African-American male with a close hair cut.

On August 14, 2011, I boarded United Airlines Flight UA #3483 from Boston to Dulles on time and was seated in an isle seat #9C on an Embraer 170. I was dressed in shorts, baseball hat, t-shirt, hiking boots, and unbuttoned Jimmy Buffett Hawaiian shirt (covered with airplanes). As the door was being closed, we were told it was a full flight, meaning 70 – 80 people. I had my backpack under the seat in front of me, and my fanny pack/wallet behind my heels.

After the doors were closed the flight attendant came down the isle checking security buckling, bag clearance etc., and asked if she could put my fanny pack above me in the overhead bin. I replied to her that I’d be fine just stuffing it next to my backpack under seat in front of me as it contained my wallet etc and that I’d rather have it near. She seemed fine with that resolution. All that was done without consternation or belligerence, and I thought nothing of it.

Now, I am a musician by trade and an amateur aviation historian, studying mostly European transport aircraft between WW1 and WW2, and some after. I was on my way to two different music festivals. When I travel I delve into reading about this era of aviation. I had taken out and was reading a book of Polish Aircraft circa 1946 and I was also looking at views of an Italian aircraft from 1921.

I think you see where this is going…

The plane went all the way out to the take-off point, in the queue for take-off. All the while I noticed a lot of phone pinging back and forth between the flight attendants. The young woman flight attendant was also crouched next to and conversing seriously to a dead-heading pilot about 4 seats up on the other side. The plane then proceeded to turn around and head all the way back to the gate. Once at the gate, the jet bridge was positioned. The Captain announced, “We have a minor issue, and we will continue our departure once it’s resolved.” He left the aircraft.

After about 5 – 10 minutes, 2 Mass State Policemen, 1 or 2 TSA Agents, and the bursar for the flight come down the aisle and motion me to get off of the plane. I do not remember if they called me by name. We stepped out into the breezeway where one of the State policemen asked how I was doing that day.

I replied, “Sir, I think you’re going to tell me I could be doing much better…”

Policeman: “Did you have a problem with your bag earlier?”

Me: “No sir, not at all. The flight attendant wanted it secured elsewhere other than behind my feet, and I opted to put it under the seat in front of me. It’s my wallet, even though there’s only 30 bucks in it…And all that was done without belligerence, or words for that matter…it was all good.

A few beats…

Policeman: “Sir, were you looking at a book of airplanes?”

Me: “Yes sir I was. I am a musician for money, but for fun I study old aircraft and build models of them, and the book I was reading was of Polish Aircraft from 1946.”

Policeman: “Would you please go get that book so that i can see it?”

I go back onto the plane – all eyes are on me like I was a common criminal. Total humiliation part 2.

After a couple of minutes he says, “Why, this is all Snoopy Red Baron stuff…”

Me: “Yes sir, actually the triplane you see is Italian, from 1921 a little after World War 1…”

Policeman: “No problem here then, you can go on back on to the plane, sorry to inconvenience you…and have a nice flight”.

We were now at least, after re-queuing, over an hour late. No one looked me in the eye, flight attendants, passengers. I missed my next connection, and had to cancel that portion of the flight (fair $ value equaling ??) and rent a car ($270) plus fuel ($30) to my work (lost 1/2 wages = $100), and I was afraid to read for the next two flights.

I silently wept the whole flight to DC. I’ve never been so frightened or humiliated. I’m shaking even writing this.

How much money was lost between the airline, the other travelers? – I couldn’t begin to calculate.

How damaged am I from this experience? I’m not feeling particularly American. I’m angry, dumbfounded, frightened.

Would this have happened to the 30-ish Caucasian woman sitting across the aisle from me (who left her seat, water bottle, and book, never to be seen for the rest of the “completely full” flight)? Is it now against the law to be dark and read a book about historic aircraft?

What’s my take-away from this experience as a taxpayer, United Airlines patron, Black Man, teacher, mentor, American? I was brokenhearted and speechless as I overheard my friend’s wife try to explain to her kids what happened and what he and I were talking about over dinner. They never did get why.

What do I tell your children?


What do I do now – please advise?

Please contact me at the email above

Thanks in advance,

Vance Gilbert
Arlington, MA


Flying While Black & Reading Antique Aviation Books

18 replies on “Racial Profiling and Idiots in the Air”

I ain’t black but I had an experience one time with a friend of mine. We were out in NYC for a few drinks and I decided to bring him to a bar I went to frequently while not being a regular. In all my time I was never stopped by the security and even in some states of extreme drunkenness was never even calculated by the door staff. My friend as you might have guess was black in his late 40s and dressed better than I was. The thing is he wasn’t stopped I was but when I asked him to go in and get the owner who’s name I knew and was acquainted with he was refused. I was gutted because I knew it was in fact him they were stopping. It was humiliating for him but he was willing to let it slide. i didn’t take the same approach and it didn’t finish well. Not violent just disgust registered vociferously! It is a terrible thing and much worse I imagine when it happens in the closed environment of an airplane.

Do you really think this is normal? Honest? Upfront? Is there not a lawyer you can reach out to about this? I live in Ireland, there is so much discrimination here also, not about colour but about who you are. There is a great need to have all this adressed, now!

I witnessed something like this on an internal flight from Newark to Buffalo last year.

It was a small propeller powered plane, United Airways flight. A white middle aged flight attendant was a nasty piece of work. She humiliated this Indian family. Father, Mother and two children who were about 8 – 10 years old.

She walked down the isle and politely asked for each passenger to check their safety belts and when it came to the Indian family, her face turned to disgust and with a raised voice said “Ye better make sure YER belts are fastened and while YER at it, DONT take them off!!” and then calmly proceeded to ask every other passenger to do the same.

A voice in agreeance from behind me pops up and said “YEAWW” and a couple of people start clapping.

Fox News filled hate

I’m not sure this has anything to do with race. Maybe it has. Turkish airlines overcharged me by €2000 on the eve of my friends wedding. They then humiliated me and my girlfriend in front of the whole flight. After writing my letter of complaint and getting no reply I will spend the rest of my life writing and telling everybody that listens what a shit airline they are. Eventhough they made a quick €2000 off me, they will loose a lot more in the long run. Eventually when they piss enough people off with this behaviour they will fold. For once, the beauty of capitalism.

I don’t see a problem here.

The cabin attendant apparently had concerns about the behaviour of the passenger in seat 9C, and (perfectly correctly) expressed those concerns to a member of flight crew. The captain returned the aircraft to the gate, and referred the matter to the security services. By his own account, the passenger was dealt with politely and in a very professional non-confrontational manner by the police. Once the situation had been clarified, the passenger was bid a nice flight, and received an apology for any inconvenience caused.

If there’s a racial profiling element to this story, it eludes me.

not sure the race card has anything to do with it here, just severe dumbness on behalf of the trolley dolly. I guess there’s a reason some people are trolly dollys and not surgeons………

On the other hand, what about race in the US? People give the Australians a hard time about being racist and what not, but are the yanks just as bad? (apparently)

I just realised my previous post is riddle with spelling errors and grammatical issues, so maybe I’m the moron!

idiots and uniforms, yes…. Perhaps you know that the SI=unit for measuring intelligence is “Tary”? That’s why some uniformed people are Tary 10^-3.

Leaving the race card aside for a minute, i’am afraid that 9/11 and the reaction afterwards by the U.S. government (bush led) has turned the American nation as a whole, into a semi permanent state of paranoia.

Leftwinger, I agree. However, this incident isn’t a valid representation of that institutional paranoia, in my opinion. Profiling is the singularly most effective method of ensuring safety for the travelling public – the Israelis are world class experts in this field. Check in for a flight to Tel Aviv, and you’d better allow 4 hours for the interview process, because each and every passenger is extensively checked by at least two agents. Expect to have your baggage (all of it) opened and inspected in detail as you look on. Expect any apparent discrepancies in your answers to be verified before you travel. On the other hand, what the TSA & Homeland Security offer is, quite literally, a security theatre. It’s a worthless sham. The security screening at some Irish airports is beyond farcical (Kerry and Galway airports spring immediately to mind). The so-called security at some UK airports is way beyond farcical. By way of example, I was recently sent back from the security checkpoint at John-Lennon-International-Liverpool-Airport for having my toothpaste (in the regulation <100ml container) in the *wrong type of clear plastic bag*. The bag was a standard, clear, polythene freezer bag, and had been through numerous airport security checks without a problem. Apparently, the silk-screened panel on the bag (the bit that you'd write on if you were to label something for your freezer) is in contravention of regulations, and could cause aircraft to plummet from the skies and crash into puppy farms and orphanages. Now *that* is the kind of mindless shit we should be railing against. If we don't, then the terrorists have won. Game, set and match.

That’s all well and good allowing 4 hours for check in for a flight to Tel-Aviv, BP (Check-in would be at the departing city though.. Israeli immigration I take it are only based in Israel. They mightn’t last long elsewwhere. :), but if that is true, that’s the treatment everyone gets.

This man was singled out.
I don’t believe what happened to him would have happened if he were a white man or woman.

That said, he could do with toughening up just a little. Sorry.

I don’t believe what happened to him would have happened if he were a white man or woman.

Good point, FME. There’s a key piece of information missing from Vance’s narrative. What assumptions did you make about the race and skin colour of the cabin attendant and the security personnel involved?

BP, I presumed someone who felt they were discriminated solely because of their skin colour, were not subject to that by people of the same race… so I presumed they were white.
I could be wrong though but it’s doubtful. :)

if anyone reading vance gilberts’ report to united airlines believes this same incident would have happened to the mid-aged white guy 2 rows back, reading identical book, w/his backpack placed under his seat…please!!!
so…is there a new “united airline” law now, which prohibits backpacks, purses, snack sacks, laptops etc.. from being stored underfoot instead of placed in overhead? and then perhaps next: each airbus passenger traveling w/in u.s., has to stand in queue a bit longer, for their carry-ons to be visibly inspected by agents-checking, amongst other items~ to see if the passengers’ reading material is appropriate for the flight? ‘bold pilot’s’ “key piece of missing info.”????? aren’t we talking about what happened to the victim here? and not the perpetrators of the incident, but the man vance gilbert? what does it matter the race of attendant or agent??? this has zip to do with what happened. makes one wonder what the criteria is here, for airport/airline profiling of potential terrorists…..blatent racial discrimination? you bet it is…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.