An Ivy League economist of Italian nationality boarded an American Airlines flight on Thursday, little knowing he would be removed from the flight as a suspected terrorist. What was merely an example of math was erroneously recognized as a possible terror plot.
Guido Menzio, 40, is an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and was flying from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse. To pass the time as the flight boarded, Menzio worked on a differential equation.
According to Fox News, Menzio was on the first leg of a connecting flight that would eventually take him to Ontario, where he was scheduled to give a talk at Queen's University about a working paper he had co-authored on menu costs and price dispersion.
Ivy League economist removed from plane & interrogated for doing math; his seatmate thought it was "terrorist code" https://t.co/DJqUZdg4SA
— Megan Hess (@mhess4) May 7, 2016
However, a woman in her 30s sat down next to Menzio, noted his olive skin and a foreign accent, and then spotted the equation he was busy working on. Reportedly, Menzio was trying to keep to himself as he worked, but the woman insisted on launching into small talk.
She asked Menzio if Syracuse was his home, to which he curtly replied, "No." Trying to curtail the unwanted small talk, Menzio deflected several other questions. The woman, however, flagged down a flight attendant and handed the cabin crew member a hand-written note.
From that point on, passengers waited impatiently as the flight failed to take off when scheduled. After around 30 minutes, the flight attendant reportedly approached the female passenger, asking her if she now felt okay to fly or if she was still feeling "too sick."
While the woman said she was okay to fly, the flight crew was not convinced, and American Airlines flight 3950 remained grounded. Without advising passengers, the plane then turned around and headed back to the gate, where the female passenger was escorted off the plane.
Reportedly, a cabin crew member gave passengers an excuse, saying there was paperwork to complete or "fuel to refill" or some other sort of excuse that Menzio couldn't exactly recall later due to his concentration on his work, and the plane remained on the ground.
According to the economics professor, it was then revealed what the real problem with the flight delay was, as the pilot approached Menzio and also escorted him off the plane, where he was taken to meet "some sort of agent."
The agent asked him what he knew about his seatmate on the plane, to which Menzio responded that she had acted a little funny but didn't appear to be visibly ill. At that stage, he believed he had been called off the plane to clear up a problem involving his co-passenger.
It turned out the woman was not ill at all but had spotted her seatmate's scribbled notes, written in a script she could not recognize. She had felt it her duty to alert the authorities in case of a terror threat against the American Airlines flight. Menzio was then informed that he was suspected of terrorism.
Reportedly, at that point in the interview, the economics professor laughed, saying his scribbles were not Arabic, but merely math.
According to the Washington Post, Menzies is a decorated Ivy League economist, reportedly best known for his relatively technical work on search theory, which earned him a tenured associate professorship at the University of Pennsylvania as well as stints at Princeton and Stanford's Hoover Institution. While swarthy of complexion, he is in no way of Middle Eastern origin, as he is Italian.
— CNET (@CNET) May 8, 2016
The scribble he was so highly concentrated on while seated on the plane was a differential equation, where he was working out some properties of a price-setting model he was about to present.
After Menzio showed his calculations to the authorities, he was allowed to reboard the plane. He later told the Washington Post reporter that the pilot seemed a little embarrassed.
Soon after this, the flight finally took off, two hours late. As for the woman who had reported the terrorist activity, she reportedly never reboarded the flight.
According to Casey Norton, a spokesman for American Airlines, the woman had initially told the cabin crew she was sick, but when she deplaned, she disclosed her fears that her seatmate on the flight was a terrorist. Norton said once they interviewed Menzio, they soon realized he was not a "credible threat."
Menzio said that while he was treated respectfully throughout the incident, he still remains baffled and frustrated by a "broken system that does not collect information efficiently."
Speaking of the ignorance of his female seatmate on the plane, as well as a "security protocol that is too rigid," Menzio added that rising xenophobia, which he says is currently being stoked by the presidential campaign, may soon make things worse for anyone who looks "different."
"What might prevent an epidemic of paranoia? It is hard not to recognize in this incident, the ethos of [Donald] Trump's voting base," he wrote in an email to the Washington Post.