Profiled for Doing Mathematics on a Plane

May 9, 2016

An airline passenger reported a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania for suspicious activity after mistaking a complex equation he was working on for possible terrorism, the Associated Press reported. Guido Menzio, the Italian-born professor, said a woman sitting next to him passed a note to a flight attendant expressing concerns that he was a terrorist as he scribbled calculations on a piece of paper. He was soon interviewed by airline and security personnel as the plane was delayed on the tarmac. The woman, who'd claimed she was ill, was removed from the flight.

Menzio, who was flying from Philadelphia to Syracuse, N.Y., on an Air Wisconsin-operated flight en route to Ontario, Canada, for a conference at Queen’s University, initially thought he was being questioned about his seat mate's stated illness. But Menzio said he was told the woman was concerned about the “strange” things he was writing. He explained what he was doing and the plane took eventually took off -- minus the concerned passenger. Yet Menzio told the Associated Press he was bothered that the conversation had escalated to such a degree. "Not seeking additional information after reports of 'suspicious activity' … is going to create a lot of problems, especially as xenophobic attitudes may be emerging," he said.

A spokesperson for American Airlines, which ran the flight, said the crew followed protocols to take care of a sick passenger and investigate allegations. The woman was rebooked on a later flight.

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