There are a lot of horror stories in the news these days about flying. The 200 passengers on a charter airline were asked to pony up a grand total of $31,000 to pay for gas at a refueling stop in Vienna Airport when bankers froze the airline’s bank account—otherwise, as the attendant said over the microphone, they weren’t going anywhere. There’s other stories about passengers being held strapped into their seats out at the end of runways for hours on end without food or water as the pilot waited “his turn” to take off. And then there are the stories of those thrown off airplanes for one reason or another. It makes national news when the person is a celebrity, as it did last week when the victim was Alec Baldwin of Amagansett. Then there was the time, a month ago, that the Port Authority and the FBI had to rush to LaGuardia, as a Delta jet came in for a landing because the pilot had locked himself in the toilet. [expand]
I have my own story of being taken off an airplane. It happened on Southwest flight 85 going from Islip to Washington a couple of years ago. I had taken with me copies of numerous articles I had written about Iraq and Afghanistan over the years thinking that, on this flight, I’d use these articles as source material for a new article I planned to write opposing what was going on there. I’d used a yellow highlighter to note the relevant passages. There was a lot about Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and Bush and Karzai. Bin Laden and Hussein were not dead yet.
Going through the airport at Islip, I had bought The New York Times for that day and as I went through security, I folded the articles from Dan’s Papers into the center of the Times for easy carrying, then put them in a tray with the rest of my possessions and went through security. When I got through, as I was putting on my shoes and putting away my laptop and organizing all my metal objects, I did not notice that the Times was no longer with me.
The plane was full. I was traveling alone and I was assigned to an aisle seat. I sat down there, buckled up, listened to further instructions and then watched as the attendant closed and locked the door to the aircraft. But then we didn’t go anywhere. We just sat. Fifteen minutes went by. And then the door reopened and three very serious-looking men in black suits came in. The one in the front addressed the passengers.
“Is there a Dan Rattiner on board?” he asked. I raised my hand.
“Could you come with us, please?”
I got up, one of the three men got behind me, indicated to me I should get out into the aisle and with the other two in front, was led off the plane and out into the breezeway and back into the terminal. There, we were joined by three other men in black suits, and, as I now saw, a pilot.
“How long will you be?” the pilot asked.
“We should know in 10 minutes,” one of the suits said.
With that, the pilot, he was our pilot, returned to the plane, and me and the remaining six went into a small room off the lounge area by the gate. I had no idea what this was about. But I sure did know I was being taken off the plane.
“I have a bag on board,” I said. “Do you want me to get it?”
“Did you check anything in baggage?”
The man spoke into a small microphone clipped to his lapel.
“See if he checked any bags.”
“Can we see your driver’s license?” another man asked.
I handed it to him.
In that room, on a rectangular conference table, was a copy of The New York Times. Folded. They brought me up close to look at it. And they stood all around me.
“Is this yours?”
“I think it is.”
One of the men unfolded the paper.
“Want to explain what these papers are inside?”
“Those were newspaper articles I was working on,” I said.
He slid over the articles, and I looked at the headline of one of the stories I had written the year before. It said WHICH SADDAM? Below it were seven identical photos of Saddam Hussein. Hussein, who was on the run, was making appearances here and there, but was it him?
It occurred to me that nobody knew I had written these articles. They thought somebody else had. And I had underlined all these passages in the articles in yellow highlighter. I could be a terrorist.
“I wrote these articles. I’m the editor of this weekly newspaper. It’s called Dan’s Papers. On eastern Long Island.”
“So you CAUSED these articles about Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah to be written?”
“No. I wrote them. I wrote them myself.”
I pointed to my byline. The byline read “By Dan Rattiner.”
“If you wrote these articles, why did you highlight them?”
“I was going to write another article on the plane about the war. These were the passages I was going to use as reference for the new article.”
And so I launched into a complicated explanation. I was very nervous. I realized I’d have one shot at this. It had to come out right. Or I’d be going down into some terrible place for further interrogation. And from there, who knows?
“I’m AGAINST Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.” I said. “Is there something wrong with writing about Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden?”
“Did anybody read what I wrote? I’m an American journalist writing articles against Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.”
There was a long silence. During this time, one of the men bent over and read a passage. Then he read another passage.
“This is very plausible,” he said.
“Are you sure?” another asked.
“I’m sure,” the first said. “He can go back to his seat.”
One of the men handed me back my driver’s license and another motioned me to the door, but I wanted my stories. I went over to scoop them up, but then stopped and looked up at the man who seemed to be in charge. He nodded.
“Have a nice flight. Sorry to hold you like this.”
“You can come with me,” one of the men now said. “I’ll go with you.”
But they weren’t quite done. As we started back down the ramp, this man now asked for my phone number. And so I gave it to him. And he wrote it down. Putting a tap on it, I thought.
“I don’t blame you. I really don’t,” I said.
And so I was escorted back onto the plane and to my seat. Apparently, people had been talking about me while I had been gone. My computer bag had stayed on the floor. This man with a white beard had been taken off the plane. Was that bag a bomb?
I smiled and shrugged.
“What happened?” the woman next to me asked. Her name was Susan Winant and she was traveling with a fussy one and a half year old on her lap. And so I told her.
The bulkhead door now closed, and the plane began to move, towed backwards as it always is, out of the gate. A stewardess came over and offered me a drink.
“On the house,” she said.
I told her a screwdriver would be fine. When she returned, she had the business card of the pilot, which she handed to me.
“He offered his apologies too. And he said if you need anything, just call him.”
“Are you going to write about this?” Susan asked.
“Yes I am,” I said.
She asked if we had a website. I gave it to her.
And so, we took off. And as we approached Washington, I mentioned to Susan and a man sitting on the other side of her from Washington that I guessed if we landed safely it would prove I wasn’t a terrorist. Shortly thereafter, we did.
“See?” I said.