New York-based data scientist Aditya Mukerjee admits that his physical appearance regularly ensures that he'll get hassled by airport security, but none of his past experiences with being "randomly selected" could have prepared him for the nightmare that ensued following a standard TSA pat-down earlier this month.
While heading to Los Angeles for an annual family "pilgrimage" during which Mukerjee, who is Hindu, spends a week "visiting temples, praying," and generally enjoying the company of his friends and relatives, Mukerjee decided to opt out of the millimeter wave detectors — something he says he always does — and submit to a pat-down instead.
During the procedure, Mukerjee's hands were swabbed with a "cotton-like material" used to check for explosive residue.
For a reason that remains unclear to this day, Mukerjee's sample caused the machine to beep, which in turn set off a chain reaction of events that resulted in a terrifying post on Mukerjee's Tumblr entitled "Don’t Fly During Ramadan."
During a private pat-down, which Mukerjee was extremely reticent to allow but was given no choice, a TSA agent asked Mukerjee about his trip, which ultimately resulted in the response, "we’ll be visiting some temples."
Between the detention for hours without food or water, the rough interrogation, and the increasingly worrisome encounters with agents from nearly every federal law enforcement agency, the thing that upset Mukerjee the most was how his airline, JetBlue, reacted once they arrived at the impression that he was a Muslim.
As they patted me down for the fourth time, a female TSA agent asked me for my baggage claim ticket. I handed it to her, and she told me that a woman from JetBlue corporate security needed to ask me some questions as well. I was a bit surprised, but agreed. After the pat-down, the JetBlue representative walked in and cooly introduced herself by name.
She explained, “We have some questions for you to determine whether or not you’re permitted to fly today. Have you flown on JetBlue before?”
"Maybe about ten times," I guessed.
"Ten what? Per month?"
"No, ten times total."
She paused, then asked,
"Will you have any trouble following the instructions of the crew and flight attendants on board the flight?"
"No." I had no idea why this would even be in doubt.
"We have some female flight attendants. Would you be able to follow their instructions?"
I was almost insulted by the question, but I answered calmly, “Yes, I can do that.”
"Okay," she continued, "and will you need any special treatment during your flight? Do you need a special place to pray on board the aircraft?"
Only here did it hit me.
"No," I said with a light-hearted chuckle, trying to conceal any sign of how offensive her questions were. "Thank you for asking, but I don’t need any special treatment."
She left the room, again, leaving me alone for another ten minutes or so. When she finally returned, she told me that I had passed the TSA’s inspection. “However, based on the responses you’ve given to questions, we’re not going to permit you to fly today.”
Mukerjee couldn't believe it: The TSA and the NYPD had cleared him to board the plane, "but JetBlue had decided to ground me," he wrote.
He later determined that what likely set off the bomb detectors was some anti-bedbug spray Mukerjee had used on his bed sheets, but by then it was too late.
Though JetBlue agreed to refund his ticket, Mukerjee still had to purchase a same-day ticket with another airline that cost him $700 extra.
When Mukerjee himself tweeted at JetBlue, they again reiterated their regret at "the inconvenience that caused you" before glibly adding, "We understand you were offered to travel the following day, or a full refund."
"I think basic information, training and context for these things would go a long way," he said.