In his Tumblr post, Mukerjee, a Boston-based data scientist, said he was singled out on the security line at New York’s JFK airport and held for hours, without food or water, on Aug. 3. He was eventually told he could not fly on his scheduled JetBlue flight.
The TSA said explosive materials were found on him, but Mukerjee never got the opportunity to explain himself. He later guessed it was bed bug spray, with pesticides, which got on him during a recent move between apartments.
“We’re not detaining you. You just can’t leave.” My jaw dropped.
“Either you’re detaining me, or I’m free to go. Which one is it?” I asked.
He glanced for a moment at my backpack, then snatched it out of the conveyor belt. “Okay,” he said. “You can leave, but I’m keeping your bag.”
I was speechless. My bag had both my work computer and my personal computer in it. The only way for me to get it back from him would be to snatch it back, at which point he could simply claim that I had assaulted him. I was trapped.
The post, called “Don’t Fly During Ramadan,” has begun going viral, sparking debate on the extreme measures used by the TSA, police, and FBI. Mukerjee was assumed to be Muslim and fasting for Ramadan, which was in its final week during his ordeal. He is actually Hindu and was flying to meet his parents for a holiday in Los Angeles.
“Think of all the people that go through this that haven’t written something,” Mukerjee told the Daily Dot. “I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I can talk about it publicly.”
He told us he’s been stopped for random checks before, once in Toronto and other times at different airports. JFK and LaGuardia are the two worst, in his opinion.
Mukerjee eventually passed the TSA’s inspection. But JetBlue wouldn’t let him fly.
She left the room, again, leaving me alone for another ten minutes or so. When she finally returned, she told me that I had passed the TSA’s inspection. “However, based on the responses you’ve given to questions, we’re not going to permit you to fly today.”
“I understand on one hand how this can look odd to someone who doesn’t know these things, but that’s what the truth is,” he said. “I happen to be moving, I happen to be Indian. If they’re not able to educate themselves about basic things… It took them a while to figure out I was Hindu, instead of Muslim.”
A JetBlue rep said it was the first she’d heard of the incident. An hour later, she confirmed in an email that “a customer was denied boarding on August 3, 2013.”
“For JetBlue’s part, we stand by our crewmember’s decision,” wrote the representative, who referred me to the TSA, PAPD, and FBI for their statements. “We regret the embarrassment and inconvenience this decision caused our customer.”
The TSA told me over the phone that they were looking into the incident as well.
Mukerjee’s post reveals extreme religious ignorance on the part of the authority figures. “I didn’t realize at first that my religion was playing into it,” he told us. Mukerjee was asked if he’d need special accommodations to pray on the flight, if he was fasting, and how religious he actually is. JetBlue provided a Hindi translator—even though Mukerjee does not speak Hindi and never indicated he has a problem with English. (“Mukerjee is a very common Indian name,” he said.) He was asked invasive questions about his work and his apartment. The whole debacle cost him $700 in rebooking fees.
Upon returning home, Mukerjee writes, he also noticed items missing from his new apartment.
Despite all this, he hasn’t lodged any formal complaints. He told us he plans to file a FOIA request to see why he was held and if they searched his house.
“It would give me peace of mind,” he said. “I had an implicit fear of am I going to be able to get back home? What if they put me on the no-fly list and I have to take a train for four days to New York? I have to go to work.”
Mukerjee hopes JetBlue can change its screening policy. “I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. But the bigger question is, is this the right thing to be doing? … I think basic information, training and context for these things would go a long way.”