How the United States TSA Made Aeromexico Look Like Racist A-Holes

This Week in Racism, Sikh American designer and actor Waris Ahluwalia was stopped from boarding his Aeromexico flight from Mexico City to New York because he wears a turban.

Well….not exactly.

The media is spinning the story like Aeromexico doesn’t allow turbans on their planes. In fact, he was asked at the gate to remove his turban for inspection, and he refused. It turns out for US-bound flights, foreign airlines are obliged to uphold TSA protocols for screening passengers, which, as we all know, are racist as hell. And protocol says if a passenger refuses to submit to any part of a search, they can be prevented from flying.

But were Aeromexico to let Ahluwalia slide through without complying to security requests, however racist and bungled, the consequences could be dire. Read on for how the TSA enforces its ineffectual and racist policies abroad, and does a really bad job of it.

The Incident

Around 9:30am EST February 8th, Sikh-American designer and actor Waris Ahluwalia posted to a photo to his Instagram holding a plane ticket with a caption saying he was barred from boarding his Aeromexico flight from Mexico City to New York because of his turban:


The New York Times reports:

The actor, Waris Ahluwalia, who follows the Sikh religion and wears a turban, said he checked in at the Aeroméxico counter at Mexico City’s international airport about 5:30 a.m. and was given his first-class boarding pass with a code that he said meant he needed secondary security screening.

When he showed up at the gate…his feet and bag were searched and swabbed, he was told to remove a sweatshirt and he was patted down. Then, he said, he was asked to take off his turban.

“I responded matter-of-factly that I won’t be taking off my turban,” he said in an interview Monday afternoon from the airport in Mexico City. “…They said, ‘O.K., then you are not getting on the flight.’ ”

He said he was told by another airline security official that he would not be boarding any other Aeroméxico flight until he met their security demands.

As of this writing, he is still voluntarily in Mexico City.

It’s critical to understand that he wasn’t told he could not enter a plane simply because he had a turban on. He was told he could not enter the plane unless took his turban off for security to search it.

With almost 22,000 followers, it didn’t take long for his story to go viral.

Traveling while Brown

Male Sikhs sport beards, turbans, and often dark complexions (most are Indian). There are no more than half a million of them in the US and they don’t even register as a demographic in Catholic Mexico. Low relative numbers and stereotypical markers of Muslim terrorists mean they are often perceived as, well, Muslim terrorists. This leads to misled profiling in airports and borders—never mind that profiling is misled in the first place.

In a survey of about 600 Sikhs conducted by a South Asian advocacy organization, 25% of respondents said they were subjected to secondary security screening by TSA agents more than half the time they traveled.

The internet is understandably outraged at Aeromexico for their racial profiling. Many are showing their solidarity with the traveler and condemnation of the airline on social media with the #StandWithWaris hashtag:

Some Mexicans are even apologizing on behalf of Mexico:

What Ahluwalia, who remains in Mexico, and his supporters are asking for is an apology from Aeromexico (issued February 9th) and “a plan for further employee training (either through the Sikh Coalition or independently) on sensitivity to religious passengers.”

But remember: he wasn’t told he could not enter a plane with a turban on. He was told he could not enter the plane unless took his turban off for security to search it. And they said this according to the demands of United States Transportation Authority. (Where his apology now lives used to be a statement indicating such, but here is a cached copy.)

If anyone is to blame here for the mishandling of a profiled passenger, it’s the TSA.

The TSA Abroad

It behooves the TSA to screen incoming traffic as well as domestic. According to US federal law, the TSA must make attempts to impose its screening protocols and procedures, including the authority to bar a traveler from entering any secure part of the airport or plane, on any foreign airport/airline that serves the US.

Here are some of the protocols that may have affected Ahluwalia’s passage:

  • Screeners may pat down passengers or mark travelers as selectees for secondary screening based on “visual observations” since at least 2004 (TSA press release)
  • Gate screenings happen “under extraordinary circumstances (for example, a selectee’s boarding pass was not annotated with a distinctive marking)” (TSA Screening Management Standard Operating Procedures) (Ahluwalia’s boarding pass was marked with SSSS for “Secondary Security Screening Selection“)
  • Gate selectees may be asked to undergo a “bulk item pat down” which may require selectee to remove bulky items (TSO agent)
  • The TSA is allowed to screen hair and religious head wear. (TSA FAQ)

Travelers can be denied entry to any part of the airport, including the plane, should they fail to comply with TSA procedure.

Aeromexico was compelled to bar the traveler for non-compliance under threat of serious consequences for not doing to. Here’s how the TSA is able to coerce foreign airports and airlines to do its bidding, according to the Governmental Accountability Office:

The TSA assesses the effectiveness of security measures at foreign
airports using select aviation security standards and recommended
practices adopted by ICAO [International Civilian Aviation Organization], a United Nations organization representing 190 countries. . . . ICAO member states have agreed to comply with these standards.

. . . The TSA inspection team also conducts air carrier inspections . . . to ensure that air carriers are in compliance with TSA security requirements. Both U.S. air carriers and foreign air carriers with service to the United States are subject to inspection.

The TSA ranks inspected airports from tier 1 (low risk) to tier 3 (high risk).

If [TSA] inspectors report that an airport’s security measures do not
meet minimum ICAO standards . . . such as those related to passenger and checked baggage screening . . . TSA headquarters officials are to inform the Secretary of Homeland Security. If the Secretary . . . determines that a foreign airport does not maintain and carry out effective security measures, he or she must, after advising the Secretary of State, take secretarial action.

The “secretarial action” that can be taken is defined under USC Title 409 Subsection 449007. So you don’t have to slog through it, here’s a summary how the the Secretary of Homeland Security can go up the chain of government to really screw over the offending airport:

  • Notifying the public that it “does not maintain and carry out effective security measures”
  • Printing on passenger tickets that the airport isn’t taking their security seriously
  • Revoking the authority of planes fly into the US out of it
  • Suspend all transportation between it and the US

In 2008 Venezuela felt the wrath of the TSA for not allowing agents to inspect its airports over issues of sovereignty. The Department of Homeland Security posted public notices at US airports discouraging travel there. That might not seem like such a big deal, but in fact there was a time when Mexico’s airports were determined to be tier 2: the effects of which meant “Mexican airlines could not do codeshare flights, acquire more planes, or create new routes to the United States.” It took 162 days and over $50 million pesos (about $4 million USD at the time) for Mexico to return to tier 1, not to mention losses stemming from its punishment.

Failure to Train

Brown travelers get enough hassle in the US as it is. Now imagine the Kafka-esque nightmare that they have to go through in non-US airports with undertrained staffed whose only association of turbans is with terrorists yet are pressured by the biggest superpower in the world to catch them all.

The TSA does not have its own agents at non-US airports and must provide training to foreign staff. The TSA has an Office of Global Strategies (OGS) that “is responsible for collaboratively working with international partners to secure the global transportation network.” In other words, it determines how personnel at non-US airports perform security procedures, including screenings, for flights bound for the US. The OGS has one, ONE, internally funded program providing security training and technical assistance to foreign aviation security officials, staffed by a whole 38 people as of May 2014. Even the Office of the Inspector General of Homeland Security said that “it is very difficult to quantify the effectiveness of the training that OGS provides” (though it denies ineffectiveness in the same breath).

What are the odds that Mexico’s staff is aware of the following policies?

So long as they are expected to upload the same racist, annoying, ineffectual policies, travelers should at least be able to rest assured that they will be treated like the same level of garbage around the world.

So who’s to blame here? I believe the the bulk of it should go on the TSA and Homeland Security for expecting foreign airlines to be up to date on their procedures with no training staff and huge pressure to perform. Aeromexico may certainly have been aware of every policy as well and simply refused to accommodate Ahluwalia. But to me, it makes more sense that the pressure TSA puts on other nations to secure US borders is worth more than some agents not letting someone get on a plane that was leaving their country. But until the TSA either relaxes its grip on the world’s airports or provides adequate training, they can certainly take the blame for a step for which they say they are held responsible worldwide.

Follow me on Twitter: @nicoleamurray



14 thoughts on “How the United States TSA Made Aeromexico Look Like Racist A-Holes

    1. Pois. E que por obra e graça do divino, neste ano de eleições, os portugueses mostrem alguma inÃgtielªncia. (Tá bem pronto, eu também não acredito)Um bom ano.

  1. I am 5’2″, whiter than white with blue eyes, and I have gotten searched almost every time I’ve flown. And I mean searched. Explain that.

  2. Not quite…
    Turbans for Sikhs are sacred. The FAA recognizes this fact. Below is the FAA Procedural Guide for these matters. Read the last Question on Page 01.
    He was indeed marked as SSSS. But he was marked at the counter when printing his boarding pass. What did the person in charge of printing ticket noticed to trigger this action? Most people think his turban was the reason, and that is called racial profiling. Racial profiling is wrong. It may have been another reason, but there is no evidence.
    Agents should be trained for these situations. Other documents at the FAA website prove that they care in training people. Are Mexican agents trained with such high standards?
    (Training document:
    People are right in complaining. They should be more vocal in many situations, including cases of racial profiling in Mexico against native looking people. That den’s mean Aeromexico did right this time.

    1. Hi Miguel, thanks for your comment and the link to the FAA document, I’ll go over it. What I was trying to get across (maybe I failed!) was that maybe aeromexico wasn’t fully trained in knowing they are not allowed to ask him to take his turban off. it could be possible that they did know and simply didn’t care, but considering that the TSA rules for turbans from 2001-2007 has been that they can be removed and the more general rule is that “bulky items” need to be removed, it’s quite possible they did not. And yes, if he was marked at the counter, that would be racial profiling, which is not exactly something the TSA is known for NOT doing. As you can see from my links to surveys of Sikhs, they are often profiled when traveling.

      1. Well, you are definitely right about Aeromexico’s people not being trained well. Anyway… complicated issue.
        PS: I re-read my last post. Awful grammar. But it now lives online forever.

        1. it’s definitely complicated. i wish i had the time to go really deep into this, i could write pages!

          ps i think you can edit your post so long as you signed in with a wordpress or other 3rd party platform!

    2. Agents do not add the SSSS edit (codes assigned to mark passenger’s requests or additional services), they aren’t allowed to do so. The software used to process reservations, check in and boarding (SABRE in this case) adds SSSS on its own. Since we are required to inform passengers what SSSS means, they only can get their boarding passes at the counter, not online.

      1. This is great info! guessing you work for airlines/air travel? Is this the same throughout the world? …. would you mind if I emailed you a few questions?

        1. Sure, I actually work for Aeroméxico at Mexico city Airport. I don’t know the details of this particular situation since I just came back home from vacations abroad but sure I could help.

    3. So I get that’s why it might look like the agent did turn him into a Selectee passenger, but it doesn’t happen that way. We can only know who is a Selectee passenger until each one of them has completed the check in process. Otherwise, we’re unable to know in advance who is going to be chosen.

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