matt (hbergeronx) wrote,

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why my life flashed in front of my eyes this weekend.

I'm not going to go into a summary of what transpired here, I'm just going to repost the entire text of the letter that I'm sending out on Monday to American Airlines. Needless to say, what transpires behind the cut is a story about how ineffective security may be at the airports, and of my viewpoint on it today. If you read it before noon on monday, I'd appreciate any proofreading advice or suggestions you might have. If you have any well-connected friends who you think may be able to help expedite a response on these issues, please feel free to let them know.

Dear Mr. Goetz,

I am writing to you on the advice of one of your ticket service agents working at Newark Airport on the night of my arrival, to explain the unacceptable breach of airport security I witnessed on my connection from Dallas/Ft Worth, TX to St Louis, MO at 1:38 PM as I departed on AA2992 on 27 June, 2003. I will summarize what happened, and then discuss my noted concerns.

I routinely arrive at the airport at least two hours prior to my flight, as I did on this day, and used your eTicket kiosk to check in for my flight. I passed through security and waited for my flight at gate C2.

When the flight was called, I was beginning to get unnerved by the behavior of the gate agents, who instead of clearly calling the group numbers over the intercom, made inaudible gestures to the throng of passengers grouped around the entrance of the gate. (Note 1.) By the time I was able to ascertain that my group (group 2) had been called, group 3 was already in the queue. However, boarding was suspended as the passengers from groups 1 and 2 had completely filled the jetway. While the agent went to the counter to perform some duty, the entrance to the jetway was left unattended, and the passengers on the inside and outside were conversing actively. (Note 2.) When I reached the gate, the attendant passed my boarding paper under the scanner, and it came up red with the error “Seat Dupe”. She remarked offhand that this happens “all the time” (Note 3) and asked me to step over to the service counter, where another gate agent took my boarding paper and gave me a different boarding card, with a different seat. However, when I reached the gate entrance, it again gave the error, “Seat Dupe”. The two agents resolved between them that it was not an issue and proceeded to let me on the jetway.

As I boarded the plane, the flight attendants were busily chatting with the passengers about some labor issue, which I was to learn later was about TWA flight crews being furloughed. When I arrived at my seat, there was a woman already seated there. I pointed out to her that that was my seat, and when she said it wasn’t, we compared boarding cards briefly and we were both assigned the same seat, 21D. I began trying to attract the attention of a flight attendant, but they were ignoring my calls, even after I pressed the call button on the seat. One attendant began rattling off a boarding message, which could not be heard over the sounds of passengers boarding.

After a few minutes, and after raising my voice “We need a flight attendant help back here!”, they finally sent one of the attendants back where she said “You need to take your seat, sir!”. I replied that I couldn’t, because someone else was assigned the seat. It was a very full flight, and many seats had been occupied by now. She walked away, and at that point the other passenger asked me my name. I told her, and she said “Oh, that’s great- I have your boarding card!” (Note 4.) In fact, we had nearly identical boarding cards, both with my name. I asked her how she had gotten it, and from what I could understand, somehow she had received it from a check-in agent, and had managed to pass both security at the metal-detector, where they checked ID’s, and security at the gate, where they also checked ID’s. (Note 5.) She was distraught because she had booked a ticket to fly to Cleveland to visit her father, who was seriously ill, and was upset that she might be removed from the flight because I was complaining. A gate agent came back and took her boarding cards and mine, and I had also handed her my identification, but when she began to walk away, I asked for it back and she returned it. She asked me to take a seat and asked the woman to move to the back of the plane.

When she returned, she said there must have been some mixup, and handed back to me both my original card and the duplicate from the other woman, but did not give the other woman her boarding cards. By then most people had boarded, and there was another seat empty in the row, so she asked the woman to take a seat there. As she sat down, I told the flight attendant that I was very nervous about a passenger who had managed to get all the way through security without a valid boarding card, and that I was concerned that there might be a security breach. She responded, “I’m just a flight attendant, there’s nothing I can do, but if you go to the front of the plane, there’s a gate agent who can answer your questions.” (Note 6.)

I proceeded to the front of the cabin, where the ticket agent asked me what the problem was, and I said, “I’m very concerned that there is a passenger on board who managed to get through having her ticket and ID checked twice and no-one noticed that she did not have a valid boarding card. I’m very worried, especially coming from New York.” He replied that he understood, but that sometimes this happens, and he would look into it. I pressed further- “But: I am worried that this means there is a huge hole in security, and that we’re not safe. I’d like to know how this happened right now.” He responded “well, I understand you’re concerned, but you need to either take a seat now, or get off the plane, because we are going to depart.” (Note 7.) Whether or not it was the right decision, I decided to take a seat, and we began the preflight announcements. As we pulled away from the gate, the woman who had received my boarding card called a flight attendant over, and told her, “I just realized they took my connection when they took the other card, and never gave it back. What will I do?” The flight attendant reassured her that they would sort it out when we reached St Louis, and she would have a gate agent ready there to handle her specially and make sure she got on her connection.

As the flight ended, the flight attendants made a “special, more sober announcement”, that this flight was the last flight for this crew, and that all of the former TWA flight crews had been furloughed by the end of that day. (Note 8.) We pulled into the gate, and I ran across the terminal to make sure I made my connection to Newark, but as there was a service desk there and I was early for boarding, I asked the agent at this desk (Service center #6) for a “complaint form”. She printed an address for me, as I explained to her that I had just gotten off a flight where there had been a passenger on the flight with no boarding card. She responded incredulously that this could have happened, and I very briefly summed up my concern to her about passengers boarding without proper identification and urged her to contact her superiors to see if anything could be done right away. I also announced my intent to file a formal letter as well.

I made my connection and flight to Newark uneventfully, but feeling that perhaps I had not explained myself coherently in St Louis, I made sure to contact another agent in Newark when I arrived. She was astounded by this story, and encouraged me to write to the address above, to detail what had happened. I asked her to make sure that she let her supervisors or whoever know about this situation as soon as possible, to make sure that if there was a serious issue that it could be handled appropriately.

I would now like to summarize my feelings on the situation I have related above, as noted.

Note 1. It is very difficult to follow boarding procedures and rules if those rules are not adhered to and clearly outlined by your staff, and it encourages a certain level of unruly behavior on the part of some passengers which I feel leads to a poor level of security control at the gate. I try my best to follow procedures and behave appropriately, and feel confounded by my own good behavior when no-one seems to care about doing what is right.

Note 2. Gate agents should not be so overtaxed in their duties so as to leave an open gate unmanned. I was slightly uneasy that your boarding procedures, that is, calling by groups, for some reason had broken down, and there was no reason that a medium-sized plane such as the one on this connection should cause the entire jetway to be filled with a backlog of passengers. I feel that in the interests of security, you need to enforce with gate agents the need for strict adherence to procedures for the safety and security of passengers and crew.

Note 3. I am astonished that a gate agent would remark that an error such as “seat dupe” would occur “all the time”. The physical impossibility of more than one passenger occupying a seat, combined with the security policy of carefully destroying each boarding card as a new one is printed, should make the assignment of duplicate seats rare, if not nonexistent. Furthermore, the error message “seat dupe” was clearly incorrect, as it was not a case of a duplicate seat, but a duplicate passenger (as your records should have shown that “I” had already boarded). If your automated systems are not providing informative or accurate messages to your team members, then you are making their jobs a lot more difficult than they need be, and such careless programming could be creating an opportunity for breached security. I submit photocopies of the duplicate cards returned to me, attached, as evidence that some procedure had not been followed.

Note 4. My greatest concern arises from the fact that your staff managed not only to give a document with my name to another passenger, but also, to fail to check her identification and let her through to the plane. First of all, I assume that at boarding time if she had requested a copy of a receipt for the flight, she would have received a document which would have my name and personal information, and also possibly my credit card number printed on it. This not only constitutes an issue of physical safety, therefore, but also one of the integrity of my personal data. It would be unfortunate, though not incurable, if she were to gain personal data enabling her to commit fraud. However, this is the least of my concerns. She managed not only to get through the checkpoints staffed by government-managed TSA agents, who I suspect are also at fault, but also past the ticket agent (since she had a green printed-card like one given by agents, not by automated kiosks), and past the ID check at the gate, both of which points (I assume) are manned by American Airlines personnel. I emphasize: your staff allowed, and even facilitated, a passenger whose identification did not match their boarding card to pass multiple levels of security and board the plane. If you were truly concerned for security, you should have zero tolerance for this, but that your staff seemed to accept it as an almost-routine occurrence makes me very frightened.

Note 5. I am concerned that the agents who check identification, as evidenced by failure to catch this person, are not making a sufficient effort to perform their jobs. I don’t feel that as I was arriving any of the agents involved even looked at my identification with any seriousness, and I feel that if you are going to create the additional hassle of checking and rechecking identification, that it should at least be done effectively. I don’t know if this problem is unique to Dallas, but I have always felt reassured when flying out of Continental gates at Newark that the agents very studiously check the match of my ticket and passport, and the match of my passport photo to my face. I always use my passport as identification and try to comply pleasantly and quickly with any request to make the effort of checking easier for the agents, and I expect them to ensure my safety by doing their jobs properly.

Note 6. Flight attendants should never voice their disempowerment to passengers. The fact that you have employees who feel that they “can do nothing” to ensure safety is, in my opinion, an accident waiting to happen. As a scientist by profession, we have always been taught the catchphrase, “safety is no accident.” Perhaps I was perceived to be just like some other business travelers I have noted over the years, complaining that they are not getting a drink or a comfortable seat because they were in a bad mood or intoxicated or some other factor, and I recognize that flight attendants must have to put up with unruly passengers all the time. I get frustrated by passengers like this, and was trying very hard not to make a nuisance of myself for that reason. However, my frustration at these comments caused my mood to sour quickly, and I hope that my feeling of being ignored was a product of my imagination. I hope that contrary to my impression, my security concerns were being clearly voiced behind the scenes.

Note 7. I understand that making an on-time departure is important to ensure that connections are made in a timely fashion, and that small disruptions can cause a ripple effect of problems. However, I feel extremely upset that I was made to choose between safety and timeliness. I dislike that the attitude of the gate agent was that I was a disruption, not a person with valid concerns, and that he didn’t make more of an effort to show how this could have happened nor make any effort to show that if there was a problem, the plane could be recalled to the gate before liftoff once security had been properly apprised. Passengers should not be made to choose between security and convenience. If he had voiced that I could easily be rebooked on another flight if I was concerned, I might have chosen to get off the plane immediately. However, I was worried that if I had not sat back down, I might be denied boarding or re-accommodation later. A policy outlining what alternatives a passenger has when they feel security is not sufficient might be helpful.

Note 8. I recognize that some of my concerns might not have been so severe had the behavior of your staff been more appropriate, and I also recognize that employees who are about to be laid off don’t always make the best decisions for the company. I believe that American Airlines needs to make a serious reevaluation of the behavior of the crews on staff that day, and reconsider carefully that conducting layoffs while passengers are in transit can create lapses of security that endanger the lives of passengers and crew, and the reputation of the business. Allowing staff to make announcements like they did, unchecked by procedure or recrimination, creates a hazardous situation. In fact, as I sat in my seat going over the events, I became worried that your staff might be causing problems deliberately and became even more worried about the situation.

In review, I feel that there are severe problems with how American Airlines conducts its business, and specifically, I am very worried at the security of the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport. As a business traveler who flies 20-30 flights a year, I may have a “choice” of airlines but I am guided not by personal preference but the price requirements and recommendations of the travel agent, Rosenbluth International, who books my flights on behalf of my employer. I feel that a response, detailing how American Airlines is working to rectify the situation and ensure that this never happens again, is important. It is important not only for the safety of all air travelers, but also the security of the United States, since the use of American Airlines planes in the events of September 11th makes it obvious why American Airlines might make a bigger effort to ensure security than other airlines.

I need to make some very serious decisions. I need to decide when, if ever, I fly American Airlines again. I need to make a recommendation to my manager and to Rosenbluth International to inform their decision to recommend American Airlines flights to their business travelers. I am very upset by what has transpired, and expect a swift response to allay my concerns. I expect that in the future, an honest and transparent effort be made to ensure the safety of air travelers, because I am left by this incident feeling that only lip service and useless Rube Goldberg-like contraptions have been put in place to present the illusion of security. If a distraught and unobservant, apparently clueless passenger can burst security without aid or intent, and without any alarm bells ringing, I shudder to think what people with true mean intentions can accomplish.

Matthew E. Harbowy

American Airlines Customer Relations
PO Box 619612 MD 2400
Dallas/Ft Worth, TX 75261-9612

U.S. Department of Transportation
Transportation Security Administration
Office of Civil Rights
Mail Stop: TSA-6
400 7th Street, Southwest
Washington, D.C. 20590

National Transportation Safety Board
490 L’Enfant Plaza, SW
Washington, DC 20594-0003

Federal Aviation Administration
800 Independence Avenue, S.W.,
Washington, DC 20591

Rosenbluth International
Mail Station: 31-B09
11800 SW 147th Ave.
Miami, FL 33196

NBC News
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, N.Y. 10112

The Dallas Morning News
P.O. Box 655237
Dallas, TX 75265-5237

The Record
150 River Street
Hackensack, NJ 07601

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