roy March 20, 2006 7:19 AM

Screeners are not hired for their diligence, or intelligence. Basically, they are actors.

arl March 20, 2006 7:49 AM

The story seems a bit fishy, but you can never tell. I guess we should not expect eight foot tall black men to know that a woman could be the chairman of a large airline?

That aside, if the screener did find technical documents for an airliner then a red flag should have gone up (or at least a yellow). It would be like finding a stranger in your front yard with detailed drawings of the inside of your house. Maybe (s)he has a reason to have them, but I would sure want more information!

This is the kind of abnormal situation we should be looking for. The number of people who are out flying with airliner blueprints is going to be very small each year.

Anonymous March 20, 2006 7:56 AM

It’s QANTAS. It’s not that we Australians can’t spell, it’s an acronym for Queensland And Northern Territory Air Service.

LordRich March 20, 2006 8:00 AM

I have a similar story:

Way before any of this extra security was introduced, a colleague of mine was carrying airplane parts in his hand luggage. Security were suspicious of what they could see on the xray machine. To which my colleague responded, “they’re from a crashed plane owned by your airline – do you want me to get them out in front of all these passengers and show them?” He was immediately allowed to continue.

Probitas March 20, 2006 8:06 AM

I have to agree with arl on wether or not it is appropriate to ask a few extra questions of anyone carrying airliner blueprints. How loud would the howls be if he had let her pass?

I also have to question the relevence of the screeners sex, height or race to the story. If she wants to say her being stopped is due to cultural insensitivity, why is she brtinging those matters up herself? Smething in this story just doesn’t add up.

Dan March 20, 2006 8:22 AM

This is a stupid story, anyone carrying blueprints for a plane should be treated with a little bit of suspision, female or not. There are 3 thousand million women in this world. One of them being the chairman of Qantus. That is a 99.999999999 chance that this one woman is not chairman of qantus. The security guard would have been a little stupid to beleive that story.

Michael Ash March 20, 2006 8:24 AM

Welcome to the 21st century, where not only can you be stopped and questioned for doing nothing more than carrying an unusual and completely harmless item, but a bunch of people in an otherwise-reasonable community think that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

What’s next, will I be stopped and questioned because I’m carrying a Macintosh? Will everybody here jump up to defend the screeners who did it when it happens?

Tim Vail March 20, 2006 8:31 AM


I’m not sure if you are serious. But, the problem with that idea that the security guard is stupid to believe that story is that most of the people are honest. Thinking like that seem to employ under the assumption of “guilty until proven innocent” more or less. Plus, why would terrorists want to bring the blueprint if it could leave them wide open to questioning?

9/11 had an even lower probability of happening on any given day, yet everyone in the world believed the story because they tend to believe the newspapers are honest. Especially on big things.


rl March 20, 2006 8:36 AM

As if plane blueprints were required to set up an attack inside the aircraft. Crude WWW printouts would have served for such a purpose just as well. The airline security theatre is NOT about minimsing risk, just maximising user awareness that “something”, is being done… its immense stupidity nonwithstanding.

arl March 20, 2006 8:37 AM

If you want to be worried about it, the part where she claims she “proved” her position by hand writing a note on company letterhead should do it.

This whole thing sounds like an “Ugly American” story to deflect the question at hand.

stacy March 20, 2006 8:45 AM

Leaving aside the question of whether or not someone carrying plans for an airplane should receive a more vigorous screening, my question is how is a TSA screener supposed to validate the story? Say I show up at the airport with a bag full of plans (I know nothing about airplanes), the screener ask ‘why do you have these?’ I say I’m an engineer on my way to a big meeting to discuss the plans for a new airplane. How is he supposed to valid my claim? Are business cards and letterhead really a sufficient form of credential?

MSB March 20, 2006 8:49 AM

“That is a 99.999999999 chance that this one woman is not chairman of qantus.”

Your statistics professor would tell you that this is a misuse of probability. That particular woman is either the chairman of QANTAS, or she is not. It’s not a probabilistic outcome.

Tim Vail March 20, 2006 8:53 AM

Well…I’m not sure that it was the handwritten company letterhead that really did it by itself, per se. I think it probably was a number of factors. She likely stuck to her story, looked like she really was telling the truth, and things like that. I think that is probably why the guard believed her.

Perhaps blueprints are suspicious, but if there is nothing else about that situation to be suspicious about, then I’d tend to think the person in question is being honest.

But yeah, it is a good question about how to validate the claim. But there are countless other claims out there, and often no surefire way of validating them. My thinking is sometimes the best you can do is to evaluate the person before you. Do they seem honest, not trying to hide something, or is there something suspicious about them.

mpd March 20, 2006 9:35 AM

I may be off track, but this sounds more like a story about sexism than security. I’m sure anyone going through security with airplane blueprints would be questioned a little bit more.

The point (in my mind) is simply that the guard expressed disbelief that a woman could be the chairman of a major airline.

billswift March 20, 2006 9:43 AM

The point is that she should not need to validate her claim. An increasing number of libertarians have already stopped flying altogether – see Aaron Zelman’s essay on the JPFO website.

Lou the troll March 20, 2006 9:44 AM

@mpd Thanks for focusing in the interesting part of the anecdote. The rest of it is just gibberish, hearsay (which I’ve always found funny how close the word is to heresy), and storytelling all rolled into one.

I wonder if she was flying coach…

Lou the troll

Not very anonymous March 20, 2006 9:44 AM

The viewpoint that something could be ‘suspicious’ and should warrant detaining someone is preposterous. Was she wearing a belt? She could be a murderer too, because that can easily be used as a weapon!

Too often these days people are taking on the “Guilty until proven innocent” mindset. This goes down in history as a cause of terrible things.

Do you think a terrorist would actually be stupid enough to carry blueprints onto a plane, on their person?

Maybe instead we should spend money and energy improving people’s way of life, and getting rid of reasons for people to feel the need to do destructive things.

Dan March 20, 2006 9:48 AM

@MSB: if you have a lottery ticket, you have a 1 in 14000000 chance of winning. Even thought the ticket is either a winning ticket or not.

mpd says “The point (in my mind) is simply that the guard expressed disbelief that a woman could be the chairman of a major airline.” – So every time someone makes a sexist comment it should be published in an article?

Baldy March 20, 2006 9:56 AM

@mpd “I may be off track, but this sounds more like a story about sexism than security.”

It’s both. First, it’s nonsense to suggest that someone carrying aircraft layout blueprints should immedeatly be flagged as a terrorist: this is public information that a large number of people within the travel information need access to: not just CEO’s of large aviation companies. Security here failed because it used a nonsense metric to determine that someone was suspicious.

And, of course, it’s nonense to suggest that a person can’t possibly be the head of a large corporation, or have any need to carry plans, just because they’re a woman. Security failed again because it exacerbated the original error by using bad profiling, and extraordinarialy poor reasoning.

mpd March 20, 2006 9:57 AM


“So every time someone makes a sexist comment it should be published in an article?”

Of course not. Do you think every story published is actually worth publishing?

Lou the troll March 20, 2006 9:59 AM

@Dan “So every time someone makes a sexist comment it should be published in an article?”…

I think mpd’s point was in reference to the interesting part of not behavioral pattern. I don’t think mpd was espousing publishing of sexist comments…

Lou the troll

arl March 20, 2006 10:18 AM

It sounds like she wanted to turn the topic away from the problems in her own country and played the racist and sexist card.

“You think its bad here? Well over there you will have to deal with one of ‘those people’ who have yet to learn of women’s sufferage….”

How could the TSA worker have validated her claim? Check some independent sources, done a web search any number of things. But one of the best ways when you have limited resources (time, money) is to interact with the person and see if the total story holds up. This is about looking at things and thinking about them.

As for “guilty untill proven innocent”, you have two default positions. Deny all or permit all. If you deny all and then only pass “safe” passengers you stop all kinds of problems, unknown does not go. If you permit all then you have to know what every possible risk is and then deal with it. Which configuration do you run on your firewalls?

Frank March 20, 2006 10:36 AM

Apart from the fishy origins of the story, which seems more racist (making us believe that blacks can not accept women in powerful positions):

The job of the TSA, and especially of the airline agents that screen your baggage, is to ensure the safety of the flight, and not to police what someone can or can not have in their baggage, or to jump to any conclusions from the baggage’s contents. Last time I checked, bits of paper were perfectly harmless to aviation security. This is a case of someone acting entirely outside of their authority.

BTW — far from a throrough check into the corporate governance of Quantas, but a quick trip to their Web site shows the CEO to be Geoff Dixon. No women on the executive team here. (Source:

bob March 20, 2006 11:13 AM

I flew into the late, lamented Merril C. Meigs airport in Chicago a couple of years ago. They charged me $8 (among a laundry list of other charges) for “security”. The security involved writing down my driver’s license number (not pilot’s which I would have thought would have been more relevant) after I landed. I felt much more secure knowing that I had brought something that looked like an out-of-state drivers license with me and that I had been forced to prove it.

Tom March 20, 2006 11:33 AM

Talk about double standards, if the security were to NOT stop her while carrying airline blueprints, and they DID stop a person of middle eastern descent carrying airline blueprints then we could write an article about racial discrimination in airline screening…

another_bruce March 20, 2006 11:40 AM

the lottery is fundamentally different from one’s status with a company because it hasn’t been determined yet, unlike the job to which the subject has already been hired.
the chairwoman was merely reciting the totality of her experience, which included a description of the screener, and unlike all the queasy liberals in america, she did not feel compelled to censor out anything. when i read the story, for about half a second i thought “this demands follow-up, was he fired?” and then reality set in “he’s black.” it takes a felony to fire this particular screener.
as a libertarian, i long ago stopped flying on planes. last time i flew, when i landed at lax topic “a” in the terminal was the valujet that had just gone down in florida.
nobody ever exploded an aircraft by bringing blueprints on board, but i wouldn’t expect a tsa screener to appreciate that subtlety.

runcible March 20, 2006 11:45 AM

The focus on the height, race and gender of the screener may have come form whoever wrote the article. What this looks like to me is a case of a 6-7 minute verbal statement compressed down to two paragraphs, there’s at least one point were tons of detail from her statement was obviously dropped. It’s perfectly possible IMO that over the course of her statement all three of those details came up — gender can slmost always be inferred from any description of a conversation unless it has been inentionally obscured, some people find height intimidating, so it is obvious why that might have been mentioned, and unfortunately people find other races intimidating as well. I would question why the author of the blurb chose to keep all three of these details when it was written.

another_bruce March 20, 2006 11:49 AM

grateful for your explanation of “qantas”, i’d always wondered about that and thought it might be the aborigine word for “koala bear”.

Anonymous March 20, 2006 12:11 PM

I can’t really think of any reason why an attacker would want plane blueprints when carrying out the actual attack. They only really seem necessary at the planning stage, and if they’re going to be planning the attack while already on the airplane, you’re likely alright.

Justin March 20, 2006 12:53 PM

It’s not different, because we’re concerned about the point of view of the TSA in this case. To the security screener, it wasn’t determined yet, and thus the probability point is valid.

Ed T. March 20, 2006 1:15 PM

So, having blueprints for an airplane == possible terrorist? How about those folks who use those things as part of their everyday business? How about building managers having prints for a local high-rise — should that cause the screener to be concerned as well?

And, on a lighter note — what is an 8-foot tall person of any race doing as a TSA screener — s/he could be making a hell of a lot more money working for the NBA!


Andrew March 20, 2006 1:24 PM

When you give poorly paid workers quasi-governmental authority, overwhelming pressure to “catch the terrorists” and very little guidance and support . . . don’t be surprised when these things happen.

The efficient thing to do would have been to have a police officer run a quick criminal records check. Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot. The purpose is not to catch criminals . . . it’s to make travelers feel safer.

Free massages would work better than the current TSA screening process.

another_bruce March 20, 2006 1:37 PM

are you suggesting that the woman occupied a quantum superposition of states whereby she was both chairwoman and not-chairwoman at the same time, with the 99%+ likelihood of not-chairwoman, until this superposition could be collapsed by the tsa guy’s observation?
schrodinger’s cat was just a story told to illustrate something, not intended to be taken literally.
when i’m in the market in bandon and a strange woman comes in with her hair in rollers, wearing an oregon ducks sweatshirt and bunny slippers, i can damn well assure you she’s not the chairwoman of qantas, no 99.999999% about it.
probabilities generally relate to future, as yet undetermined events. there are a few kinds of past events where they may be useful, but 1) the outcome of the event must be yet unknown, and 2) the event must have been entirely determined by the premise(s) which are asserted to be x% probable, with no other sources of inference available to the observer to guess the determination. the best example of this i can think of, a newborn baby whose parent(s) carry a bad gene, as long as the effect isn’t manifested yet in babyhood, the doctor can tell the parents that the baby has a 1/2 or 1/4 chance of inheriting a genetic disease.
a smart-looking woman in a business suit carrying airplane blueprints tends to support her assertion of office, particularly if she’s flying first-class. she’s a lot more than just a lottery ticket-woman at that point.

Koray Can March 20, 2006 2:00 PM

I’m not going to get into absurd discussions about probability because the screener is already guilty of contradicting himself: he doesn’t believe that a woman could grok airplane blueprints for doing her legitimate business, but he does suspect that she could grok blueprints for terrorist purposes? She either can do something with blueprints or she can’t; what kind of signal is there that says she could be a criminal? Moreover, she could be somebody else’s secretary for all we know. Maybe she doesn’t have anything to do with the blueprints.

pdf23ds March 20, 2006 3:20 PM

Man, another_bruce. You’re sure being obtuse. The relevant probability in this situation is the probability that an unidentified person with all of the characteristics observed by the security screener (sex, age, dress, demeanor, speech) is a chairperson of an airline (which is the question the screener was trying to answer), not the probability that Margeret Jackson is the chairwoman of Quantas. (And yeah, the screener’s incredulity was probably sexist.) Just like we can say that some random person is more likely to be a nurse or a secretary if they’re female than if they’re male, even though they obviously either are or aren’t, we can say that a person is less likely to be a CEO (or chairperson) if they’re female, since there are fewer female CEOs. (That’s not sexist, it’s simply a reflection of the systemic sexism that caused the observation to be true. It would be sexist to say that the situation, and the bias that led to it, are justified.) Similarly, we can say that a person wearing a suit is more likely to be a CEO than one without, and a person with a confident demeanor and an air of purpose about them is more likely to be a CEO, even though the probabilities remain small and not very useful. On the other hand, the probability that a person who says “I’m a CEO” is a CEO is probably very, very high, even when said to an airline security person.

But the screener probably should have stopped asking himself “could this person be a chairwoman” and started asking “Is Margaret Jackson the chairwoman of Quantas”, since the latter question was answerable and more relevant to the situation. The fact that he didn’t, presumably because he couldn’t believe a woman could be a chairwoman so he didn’t think it was worth checking, is what makes his action sexist.

And people, just because something can be legitimately used by a few people in a very particular profession doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t have any value as a predictor of terrorism, just that the value is less than something used only by terrorists.

Not that I support any of this screening silliness anyway.

Tim Vail March 20, 2006 3:35 PM


This part:

‘On the other hand, the probability that a person who says “I’m a CEO” is a CEO is probably very, very high, even when said to an airline security person.’

Is exactly what I’m trying to say here. That’s a better probability to look at.

Don March 20, 2006 3:37 PM

It may indeed be a story about sexism more than security, except so far as it’s necessary to answer “why have you got all this?” I skimmed through the audio commentary for the horrid movie “Flightplan” the other day and they mentioned doing airplane layout research and the scrutiny they got during it. You can put in your own security via obscurity rant here, I lack the energy.

J.D. Abolins March 20, 2006 3:39 PM

While we are are pursuing the security and the sexist attitude aspects of the news story, I realised that there may be a very simple language and cultural factor this this mess.

The guard may have stumbled upon the term “man” in “chairman”, the title Margret Jackson used for herself. Although “chairman” is traditionally used for the job position, regardless of one’s sex, many people think that a female chairman would be designated as either a “chairwoman” or as the gender neutral “chairperson”. The latter seems to be more common the US over the past three decades and various emphases upon gender neutrality in official terminology.

Now, I am more of a “sofaman”….

AnonymousHero March 20, 2006 3:51 PM

The link to the original story appears to be dead and I can’t figure out how to navigate that site to find a perma-link. So here is a link to the story at another site, which may or may not be permanent:

I don’t think there was any sexism involved. I think it was more likely simple language gender confusion. She apparently identified herself as ChairMAN and the guard replied, “But you are a woman.” – To my ear that indicates he thought her title ought to be ChairWOMAN, which is a perfectly reasonable expectation since some other Chairwomen do use that title instead.

So far, no one here seems to have noticed an even more important point – this Chair(wo)man is a big-wig. These are the type of people who are used to the privilege of bypassing the hassle of things like TSA security because of their monied status. I am glad to hear that she got hassled, it means that the TSA has not yet devolved into a hassle reserved for the hoi polloi. As long as the privileged of society have to put up with the same silly interference as the rest of us, there is still hope for reform.

Marg's Gimp March 20, 2006 5:11 PM

I don’t understand why a Chair(man/woman/person) would be carrying blueprints or plans anyway ? They have nothing to do with their primary areas of interest like financial results, offshoring of maintenance/other services/personnel and general cost cutting – unless the board are now micro-managing the seating arrangements to pack an few extra casualties^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hpassengers in ??

Nam March 20, 2006 7:35 PM

Innocent until proven guilty only applies when the person in question is being held for a crime. Thinking someone may be guilty is basically the definition of suspicion. Suspicion is a state of personal judgement…what one finds suspicious, another does not. If someone is acting suspicious, and you have the authority to determine an action based on that suspicion, you investigate it a little further. Otherwise, what is the purpose? Do you enjoy in your own jobs when you’re given responsibility without authority? Why try to apply the same standard to airport screeners, other than the fact that they annoy you? They are expected to exercise judgement, even if we don’t agree with their judgement, and we can’t place that responsibility on them without giving them the authority and realizing that they aren’t going to please everyone. If this wasn’t the chairman of Qantas, would this even get media attention? If this were a regular, male engineer stopped, questioned, and then sent on their way, would you even care (other than the opportunity to take up a cause for fifteen minutes and then shortly forget about it?)

More than one person in this thread considered the act of carrying airplane plans onto the plane suspicious; although probably an equal number did not find that act suspicious, a number of people did, and would have stopped the lady in the same situation.

This is a matter of suspicion coupled with authentication. A disturbing amount of people say that if she sounds like she’s telling the truth, then they should be assumed honest and allowed to pass. Would you do the same with your firewall rules?

I sincerely hope not.

Were we not discussing just a bit ago how naive people are in that they will accept a shiny badge or official looking paperwork as authentication, even if they don’t know what a proper one should look like? Why submit to unconvincing authentication of a (suspicious?) person just because it’s a commercial airliner, and not when it’s a person in a uniform with a badge?

So, as long as their story is convincing enough, they are okay in everyone’s book?

Please excuse my english.

Gino March 20, 2006 9:00 PM

Maybe Orbitz shouldn’t show seating arrangements on their web site. How about making it illegal to bring cameras aboard? How about pictures of airplanes? Maybe anyone carrying a compass and E-6B flight computer should be detained.

Why not handcuff and blindfold all passengers if it makes some people feel safe?

Information doesn’t make people dangerous.

Anonymous March 20, 2006 10:18 PM

Talk about racial profiling as well… the poor koala isn’t a bear, despite the latin name being based on bear. It’s a marsupial, no bear heritage at all.

Adam W March 21, 2006 12:06 AM

Bah it was a simple linguistic glitch:

“Why do you have these plans?”
“I’m the chairman of a major airline”
“But… you’re a woman”

It was about 10 years ago Australians officially stopped saying “chair” “chairperson” and “chairwoman” and decided to regress back to just using “chairman” for everyone.

kamagurka March 21, 2006 4:51 AM

I think the way she is depicting that guard is pretty unfair. If a woman told me she was “chairman” of something, I’d wrinkle my brow, too. The way she’s depicting this “8 foot tall man” as a troglodyte who was all like “durr wymminz too dumb for chairman job durr” is a little sensationalist, or, as we technically inclined people call it, “bullshit”. I would expect her to refer to herself as chairperson or chairwoman, frankly.

kamagurka March 21, 2006 4:52 AM

Gino: “Information doesn’t make people dangerous. ”
Of course information makes people dangerous. That’s not the point, though.

Dan March 21, 2006 7:20 AM

There is one problem with the whole of Bruce’s blog, we are always criticising people after the fact. I think that half the people here would have done the same in his situation. Just like half the people here would hand over a drivers licence to someone dressed as a policeman.

Bruce Schneier March 21, 2006 8:32 AM

“Just like half the people here would hand over a drivers licence to someone dressed as a policeman.”

Only half? I would have guessed that most everybody would.

roy March 21, 2006 11:48 AM

Here’s an online seating chart for a Boeing 767 which you can download onto your laptop and then board an aircraft while carrying ‘secret plans’.

What would be the point of stopping someone with paper blueprints but not checking someone’s laptop for the digital equivalents?

I think Koray Can nailed the crucial lie.

roy March 21, 2006 11:51 AM

Here’s an online seating chart for a Boeing 767 which you can download onto your laptop and then board an aircraft while carrying ‘secret plans’.

What would be the point of stopping someone with paper blueprints but not checking someone’s laptop for the digital equivalents?

I think Koray Can nailed the crucial lie.

Pat Cahalan March 21, 2006 2:14 PM

Only half? I would have guessed that most everybody would.

There’s an interesting scam. Dress up in a police uniform and walk through hotels near an airport, asking to see passports. When you get a positive hit, say you’re collecting passports to check against some homeland security database, and that the passport can be picked up at the desk in an hour.

Then take off with the documents.

Random Older Person March 22, 2006 10:15 AM

Maybe when the guard said “but you’re a woman” he was actually thinking not about gener but about species. Everyone who’s seen enough American tv commercials knows that QANTAS is run by koalas.

Antipodean March 23, 2006 2:17 AM

I actually believe that the true message of this article, and indeed the message that Margaret Jackson was trying to put across, was not that black American men need convincing that there are women in positions of power; the true message was that screeners at American airports are retards. This plays on the popular belief widespread in many parts of the world that all Americans are retards, and is exactly the sort of sensationalist rhetoric that gets your story published.

get real March 26, 2006 7:19 PM

Unless airlines have a policy declaring how members of staff should transfer blueprints and that they should never carry blueprints onto planes, for security reasons, then carrying blueprints onto a plane is not suspicious. Full. Stop.

We may as well start flagging people with mobile phones, they are more useful in organising terror attacks than blueprints are.

If she had a bomb or a machete, then they guy should ask some questions. He acted like an ape, so she outed him as the ape he is. This case perfectly demonstrates why totalitarianism and rudeness are both poor tactics, especially when combined, and its great to see someone in the right place at the right time saying something about it, in the right way. Rudeness begets rudeness, and to blame the defendent is to belittle humanity. Nyer.

Hateflying July 8, 2006 12:48 PM

AnonymousHero said he was happy a big-wig was stopped because it means that even they are subjected to the same procedures as others. The problem is that Margaret Jackson is a foreigner and therefore a second-class traveller in North America. Everyone knows that using any form of foreign ID will single you out for extra treatment by screeners..

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