In two incidents on September 11 (the recent one), F-16s were scrambled to escort planes on which "suspicious activity" had been reported. The activity: using the bathroom. Frontier Flight 623 and American Flight 34 were escorted to their destinations after passengers either made "too many" trips to the bathroom or stayed "too long."
This is not a good thing.
Initial reports as to Flight 623 were that two people had been "making out" in the bathroom, but that rumor turned out to be false. A passenger became suspicious of three people sitting together, one of whom used the rear lavatory for 15-20 minutes and one of whom used a forward lavatory for some shorter time. Although the crew "did not feel threatened," they still notified the TSA, which reacted in its usual measured way by sending up a fighter escort, just in case.
The F-16s tailed the plane to Detroit, where the three were detained and interrogated. An FBI spokesperson later said that it turned out one passenger had just been ill, and the other one was "using the restroom" apparently for the standard reason. Why any of them, let alone all three, had been detained at all was not immediately clear.
Oh, wait — turns out they weren't white. Mystery solved?
Shoshana Hebshi, a U.S. citizen who described herself as half-Arab, half-Jewish, and from Ohio, wrote about this on her blog. She apparently was sending tweets during the incident, not realizing she was one of the "suspicious people" the SWAT team was there to get. The others were two Indian men (not clear whether they were from India or Indian-Americans) sitting in the same row, who did not know her or each other. She had not even been to the bathroom. But, apparently for no reason other than matching skin color, all three were taken away for several hours of interrogation.
The Flight 34 story is less clear. That one also involved three passengers and a bathroom, but these passengers had been drinking. What they did wrong isn't clear – an unnamed "security official" was quoted as saying simply that they were "not compliant," which ought to send a chill up your spine. Again, the crew did not believe there was a threat, and no one on board requested assistance, but the TSA still sent two F-16s "out of an abundance of caution." No one was arrested in that case.
Let's just stop for a second, helpful passengers, and remember that the F-16s are not there to help you. They are there to shoot down the plane if necessary. What else could they do? So the TSA is out there scrambling armed fighters to intercept passenger jets out of "an abundance of caution," just because somebody reportedly spent too long on the john. Does that make you feel safer?
Extra caution due to the 9/11 anniversary does not fully explain this. In June, a flight from D.C. to Ghana turned around and got an F-16 escort after two passengers got in a slap-fight when one of them reclined his seat too far. The slap-fight had already been broken up, there was no real danger, and police made no arrests. Now, fighting on board an airplane is not cool, no matter how much I may have wanted to beat up the screaming infant and its impotent parents sitting next to me on 9/11/11. But these overreactions to minor incidents are just silly.
According to security expert Bruce Schneier, "[e]xactly two things have made airplane travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door, and convincing passengers they need to fight back. Everything else has been a waste of money." After all, the 9/11 strategy stopped working on 9/11, as soon as passengers learned what was going on. (Ask the shoe and underwear bombers where all those bruises came from.) And yet we are still so terrified of a strategy that worked for less than one day that, ten years later, we scramble fighters in response to a slap-fight or long toilet stay.
This is just the latest example of the expensive, outrageous and pointless things that we have subjected ourselves to in the name of "airline safety," though they don't make us any safer. It is a pretty good example, though, since – just as a reminder – in addition to all the other unnecessary bullshit it does, the TSA is out there sending armed fighters to intercept passenger planes if they hear that somebody has been in the bathroom too long.