| Sajid Kolsawala, who was detained in Amsterdam, back in Mumbai. (PTI)
London, Aug. 27: A woman in London who works as a stewardess told yesterday of an occasion when “an Asian plane passenger in first class asked for a screwdriver”.
Worried that the man might be a possible terrorist, the airhostess admonished him that screwdrivers were not allowed at 35,000 ft.
Whereupon, the man grinned and explained that all he had wanted was a drink: “If you won’t give me a screwdriver, then give me a vodka and orange.”
The point of this cautionary tale from the stewardess, who had confused an implement with a cocktail, was that it was dangerous on the part of cabin crew to jump to conclusions. But today, she also provided helpful tips to Asian passengers, especially innocent Muslim men — “these are not good times for young Muslim men” — on how they ought to behave during flights so as not to arouse suspicion among fellow passengers.
While the little misunderstanding on the BA flight was quickly cleared up, other incidents are leading to aircraft being diverted or having to return to base, while handcuffed passengers are taken off in humiliating circumstances by police for questioning.
Many in the West concede that “ethnic profiling” does upset young Asian men but insist there is no real alternative.
In the case of the Northwest flight to Mumbai, India has protested to the Dutch authorities over the treatment of 12 passengers of Indian origin who were taken off handcuffed when the plane returned to Amsterdam.
Meanwhile, the two men of “Middle Eastern” appearance, who were taken off a holiday flight from Malaga and Manchester, turned out to be wholly innocent British Pakistanis who were simply victims of ethnic profiling, it is now clear.
Sohail Ashraf and Khurram Zeb, both 22, said they sympathised with nervous travellers, but urged people not to be paranoid about Muslims.
“We might be Asian, but we’re two ordinary lads who wanted a bit of fun,” said Ashraf. “Just because we’re Muslim does not mean we are suicide bombers.”
According to the British Pakistani stewardess, cabin crew are being reminded that they must continue to be vigilant and pick up signs of “unusual behaviour” among passengers.
“Because of their cultural background, some Muslim men do not make eye contact with the air hostesses serving them drinks or food,” she said. “They don’t look at you. I understand that but an English air hostess might not. They find the men ‘cold’.”
Smart dress is also a good idea. While a formal suit and tie have obvious advantages over a thick jacket that could be used to conceal items underneath, dressing inappropriately can cause problems.
“I would be suspicious of a 21-year-old who was formally dressed in a suit and tie,” she pointed out.
“We are also asked to watch out for people who keep going to the toilet,” she said.
“If you have a medical condition which makes you use the toilet often, flag it up and have a quiet word with a member of the cabin crew. If there are a group of young Asian men travelling together, it is not a good idea for all of them to sit together or congregate all at once by the toilet.”
Use of mobile telephones during the flight or getting up and walking around when the “fasten seat belt” sign is switched on are practices to be avoided.
She said: “Brits are used to cultural diversity. They are used to Muslim men with beards, although I am personally against Muslim women travelling in burqas. You don’t know who’s under there. But most airlines are now culturally sensitive and allow burqas.”
Most important of all, it seems, is the psychological impression that a passenger makes on those around him and on the cabin crew. A quick smile, a few friendly words that “we are all going to a wedding” should there be a party of Asian men travelling together or courtesy shown towards others are reassuring gestures, the stewardess said.
“And please don’t leave messages in the toilet or a slip of paper with, ‘There’s a bomb’, as a joke because that will be taken very seriously,” she warned.
Another air stewardess, an Indian woman who works for Virgin Atlantic, summed up her advice: “Be polite to the cabin crew. Try and mix with the passengers, try and integrate. Use your common sense, especially if you are travelling abroad for the first time.”