Did a Boston-Based Folk Singer Get Kicked Off a United Flight Because He Was Reading a Book?

A folk singer from Boston named Vance Gilbert says that after he boarded a United Airlines flight on August 14th he took out a book about World War I aircraft and started reading. Shortly thereafter, 3 crew members from Shuttle America, which operated the United Express flight, came on the plane and asked Mr. Gilbert to come with them. They then asked him about the book of planes, examined the book, then let him back on the plane. Gilbert then says that he “silently wept” during the rest of the flight.

Gilbert posted this on his blog, and the Boston Globe has picked up the story. This both seems incredibly bizarre yet also plausible. I’m not exactly sure why he was so upset by it – crazy security-related stuff happens all the time, but for its part United said they are looking into the incident.


  1. I can understand someone not used to traveling being upset — heck, I travel all the time and was asked to leave a plane to explain the contents of my suitcase once and it freaked me out. It took about 5 minutes and ended up being a false positive, but I had anxiety for the rest of the flight and was very embarrassed by the whole being escorted off/back on scene.

  2. Mr.Gilbert is an African American. Did you really read what he wrote? What about it don’t you “get?”

  3. He was upset because he felt humiliated. When he returned to his seat no one on the plane would look at him. The plane had taxied all the way down the runway ready for takeoff and the pilot announced a minor problem and turned the plane around and went back to the gate. The whole incident caused the plane to be an hour late. Did you read the whole account of the story? The plane was sitting back at the gate for a bit and then 2 state police, 2 TSA agents and a flight attendant came down the aisle asking him to get off the plane. I would be humiliated as well in front of a whole plane like that as well as scared – when he had done nothing.

    It was also due to the fact that he wanted to keep his fanny pack with him under the seat, rather than put it in the overhead bin — also something innocuous – since those things people carry their money and personal items in. That combined with the book about planes does not a terrorist make. It was absolutely ridiculous. He also missed his connecting flight and had to rent a car and drive the 3 hours to his destination, missing one of his gigs. Ridiculous. The flight attendant could have just asked him about the book. The state cop dismissed it immediately once he looked at it. Read the account on his website vancegilbert.com and you will understand what it felt like.

  4. Vance Gilbert is a very intelligent, articulate and gentle man. There are details that the above story omitted, for whatever reason. If you care to read the letter he sent to United Airlines telling of this entire ordeal, go to
    This is not a man who looks for trouble where it does not exist…but it is clear where this whole thing was coming from. Take a look. Then, buy one of his CD’s. He is an amazing singer, song writer and human being.

  5. He was treated like a “leper” ya dang twits! I can’t believe you don’t “get it” either. The whole plane was inconvenienced, people missed flights, etc. and he was singled out with “the scarlet letter” as the one to blame, AND he did NOTHING except “fly while black”! Unbelievable!!!

  6. Clearly Jared Blank did not really research all the related info to the story before posting. Not garnering all the information before making a statement is exactly what the United personnel did and the result was not honoring the dignity of a man that many people emulate. It is ironic that Vance Gilbert, more than anyone I’ve ever met, personifies dignity, respect for others, compassion and respect. Good Judgement is critical for airline personnel during these times, but clearly, wanting to keep one’s wallet near them and reading an aviation book while wearing a shirt covered with airplanes indicates only a passion and/or interest in airplanes. If there was that much concern, though unjustified, why leave the gate at all and draw the intensity of scrutiny on an innocent man? Even more so, where is the human decency at the end of the questioning when Vance returns to his seat, when a simple announcement is not made that this passenger had done absolutely nothing wrong? I am upset with every person on that flight that denied Vance a smile, eye contact, a word of support or encouragement and by their silence further compromised his dignity. Those of us lucky enough to know this man are fully cognizant of what a gift he is in our lives and his demeanor during this outrage is a testament to his character.

  7. Whoa – easy there. Airport security is ridiculous and targets people for no reason all the time. My point is that nowadays, I’m not sure I understand why someone would take it so personally. My 5 year olds are frisked in the security line. Sure, getting pulled off the plane is terrible, but the police realized immediately their mistake. The incident, assuming it happened as report, is awful. But I think people are making this into something it isn’t.

  8. Perhaps if you grew up as an African American in this country you would understand.

    • honestly I think if you grew up HUMAN you should understand…the airlind should be ashamed of themselves. I have to wonder how many people making these comments would think it was “no big deal” if they were the ones escorted off the plane!

  9. @Jared: You’re right airport security is ridiculous these days. Removing shoes, 5 years olds getting frisked, and full body scans are par for the course. However, Vance and the other passengers on the plane had already cleared security. The plane was on the runway and cued for take off.
    To turn a plane around that’s cued on the runway for take off because of a book someone is reading is well off the beaten track of typical security crazy. Should I look forward to a list of banned topics for in flight reading at the airport after they tell me not to leave my bag unattended? Where’s the list of reading material I should avoid so my plane can take off as scheduled? Is “Guns and Ammo” acceptable? Billy Collins, “Passengers?” Clearly reading/watching “Fight Club” before take-off would be ill advised.

    • Of COURSE it’s crazy. I’ve been writing about these types of incidents for nearly 10 years. TWICE I’ve written about Jews praying on a flight who were accosted by security about what they were doing. Muslims have suffered ridiculous amounts of discrimination on airplanes for no reason whatsoever.

      My point, again, is not that this isn’t ridiculous (I can’t believe I actually have to specifically point out that dragging someone off a plane for what they were reading is ridiculous), it’s that I’m not sure I understand, given how many of these ridiculous incidents take place all the time, why someone would take it personally. The system is crazy.

      • When things happen to a person they tend to take them personally is my point I guess. And yes, the system is crazy, and yes, the people who are just living their lives according to their beliefs (Jews and Muslims) have it a lot harder I’d definitely be writing some strongly worded letters if I was pulled off a plane for reading.

        • Jared, Vance is a gentle man. He made no attempt to hide the book he was reading. If the stewardess was able to see that he was reading a book about airplanes, she also saw that the book was about very old airplanes. So why involve security? Why not ask him about the book on the airplane? In your own words, “crazy security-related stuff happens all the time.” So, since it happens all the time, it means you accept it? Rapes occur more often than debacles such as this – should we just accept that, too? Your logic, such as it is, just doesn’t hold water.

  10. I absolutely agree with Liz. And this particular person, Vance Gilbert, has a foot in many worlds. He’s an African American artist whose audiences (folk music) are predominantly white, yet I’m quite sure he has never forgotten his “difference,” the world he has grown up in and lives in still. I think that was what was being said “between the lines,” behind his comments of the sinking feeling he got when he was suddenly pulled away from the world of the book he was reading, only to realize that there was whispering and scurried activity, and then the plane went back to the gate, etc. and that HE was the reason. That he suddenly felt like “prey” to the white world who, at any moment, were going to yank him out of his anonymity, label him and smack him down as “dangerous,” and remind him that even “reading” could be interpreted, if you’re black, as being “out of line.” (Yes, the veiled reference to the LAW against literacy during slavery is intended!)

    It’s always interesting to me that it’s very often someone who has NEVER been marginalized as/by a stereo-“type” (sorry dude, but I AM saying that it IS usually white, heterosexual males) who are the first ones to say, “what’s the big deal?” And yes, sorry again, but I’m not sure if growing up white & male, i.e. the default “privileged” group, if you CAN get it. And yeah, I think THAT’S the main part of “the point.”

  11. This entire incident has me upset on many different levels. I’m upset that a friend is hurting. I’m frustrated at the paranoia that makes it seem reasonable to put up with such nonsense when we travel. I’m concerned about the fact that many people seem to dismiss his assertion that his skin color played into the events. When he says that it did, I believe him. I know enough to be certain he doesn’t look for a chance “to play the race card.” He is one of the more perceptive people I have ever met–I have seen him pick up facts not spoken many times. I realize that John Q. Public doesn’t “know” him. I don’t necessarily expect everyone to accept what he states without thought. I wish, however, that there were fewer people simply dismissing the *possibility* out of hand as if “these things” don’t happen any more

    The unfortunate reality is that we still live in a society where people make decisions every, single day that ARE influenced by the color of a person’s skin. The white woman who recently asked how much she should tip the skycaps since “the black men seem to have been replaced by white college kids.” The middle class parent who had never made a racist/prejudiced statement to me before who states that she has chosen to move to a different school district “so the girls won’t decide to date black boys.” The co-worker who intimates that the black staff members don’t work as hard as others “because, well, you know, they are just lazy.” So while not one of us is privy to the thoughts of those involved, eliminating race as a factor is shutting one’s eyes to a truth in our society. The “race card” is a reality that people have to live with their entire lives. If you are a black person, things happen to you and around you because your skin color. Of course, every bad thing that happens to people with brown skin is not due to skin color. However, it is an additional filter through which groups of people who have been discriminated against must view the world. I wish this weren’t true, but it is a truth we ignore at our peril.

  12. I, as well, find this representation of what happened to Vance (someone that I know personally) irresponsible. It lacks the major facts of the situation.

    The man was not running up and down the aisles with firecracker, for crying out loud. He was reading a book. Vance is a very easy going, intelligent person, so for him to react this way tells me that yes, something very wrong indeed happened here. No one living in white skin, and that includes me, can ever know what something like this feels like.

    In this report here as well as on the plane, a little more communication and understanding might have been nice. All that woman had to do was ask him about the book and she would have instantly known by his friendly, open, and engaging personality and explanation that everything was fine.

  13. How did this become about race? The same people who pulled him off the plane (who knew he was African American) also said they were sorry for the inconvenience when they realized that what he was reading was innocuous. He wasn’t pulled of the plane because of his race, he was pulled off the plane because some moron likely told the crew that someone was reading something suspicious on the plane.

    If different people pulled him off the plane and then let him back on the plane, perhaps there’s something there (perhaps!). But the same people who pulled him off quickly saw what he was reading, then apologized, and had him go back on the plane.

    Compare to this article where religious Jews were met by FBI agents because they were praying:

    Or this one where a passenger accused 2 religious Jews of having a bomb onboard when, in fact, they were also praying:

    Or this one where a flight was delayed after a passenger said there were too many “Arab types” on the plane:

    Or this one where a Muslim man was kicked off a plane for asking for a space to pray:

    Or this one where 6 Muslims were kicked off a plane for praying:

    I’m not saying the incident with Vance was excusable. I’m saying it’s different than the clear discrimination faced by many others who fly.

  14. Jared-

    I don’t think anyone is denying that the people in the examples you cite faced serious discrimination (I confess I have not yet read your links) and were traumatized by their experience, though being part of a group that is confronted, and being targeted when you are utterly alone are very different experiences. I am a White woman, but I know from listening to many Black friends and acquaintances that because of a very particular history that involves routinely being pulled away, isolated and routinely beaten, and often murdered, that for a Black American male to be pulled out of a group, isolated, and questioned triggers its own kind of deep trauma response. I am not implying that Black Americans are the only group that has experienced genocide or traumatization, or discrimination while flying (or driving, or shopping…) but I am having a hard time comprehending your difficulty in comprehending what an awful experience this would be. If the airline personnel had exercised more discernment, they could have avoided the situation entirely, either because they would have not seen Vance Gilbert as someone they should worry about, or they would have held the plane, researched him on the computer, and easily found enough information to allay their concerns without singling him out. If pulling him out and questioning him was unavoidable, it was incumbent on the airline, once they determined that he was blameless, to adequately apologize, assure him that he would be compensated for resulting financial losses. They would have made a public apology to Vance and to all the passengers. They would have thanked him for his patience and his grace, taken full responsibility for the delay, and if they were smart, comped everyone a free drink. This would have gone a long way toward mitigating the situation and it would have set a tone for the other passengers to be empathic and even appreciative of Vance, rather than treating him like an outcast, further isolating him. Imagine sitting trapped in an airplane for the length of that flight after a frightening confrontation with airline security, feeling you are surrounded by people who are shunning you, treating you as “other,” as some sort of untouchable. That’s an experience one would not soon forget.

    Maybe the issue is not why Vance Gilbert should be so upset about what happened to him, but that more people, as their circumstances allow, should be more publicly upset about their experiences with travel security. What Vance is doing in sharing his experience broadly may ultimately lead to positive change in the way that United Airlines handles security–for Muslims, for people of Middle Eastern ethnicity, for African Americans, for Jews, and for all of us.

  15. The people who started the paranoia were not the same people who let him back on the plane. It is about race because the brown-skinned person who was there, states that he felt his skin color was part of the equation. Yes, the examples you cite above are far more obvious and blatant. That does not in any way make his story less important.
    As for not understanding “why he was so upset about it”? People do not react in a robotic fashion. Just because you think it would have not been upsetting doesn’t make his feelings unreasonable. You could email him and ask him if you are interested in gaining a better understanding.

  16. Jared–just to be clear: we’re not ‘trying’ to make this about race, but if Vance Gilbert says that he felt like discrimination about his color was part of the incident, we believe him. It may not be ‘logical’ to you, but maybe that’s because you don’t live in his skin. You didn’t “grow up while black” in this crazy multiple-messaged society nor do you deal with it every day. This stuff isn’t as clear as a billboard, but rather as subtle as a sideways glance. When you’ve seen it and felt it a few thousand times, you come to know what it means. And it’s the reaction of the people in charge–a reaction that immediately jumps to the worst case scenario–that he’s sure would have been very different if he’d been a 52 year old white woman. That’s all he’s asking people to understand. And I believe him because that’s very close to who I am and I can tell you without a doubt: this would NEVER have happened to me! When this kind of ugliness happens, and especially to someone as thoughtful and perceptive as Vance Gilbert, the least we can do is understand that racism still is everywhere, and fighting it really is everyone’s responsibility, beginning with understanding our own ‘automatic’ reactions to individuals and the situations they find themselves in. And it seems to me the minimum we owe someone like Vance or the praying Muslims or the praying Jews, all of whom were singled out and demonized by folks with some of those ‘automatic’ and unthinking reactions, well, it seems to me the LEAST we can do is believe him.

  17. And really….what terrorist is going to pull his “Super Secret I’m Studying Up On How to Take This Here Plane Down” book out and open it on his lap right there in front of the flight attendant and the passengers next to him?? :roll: Sorry, but I just honestly think if an old white man was reading a book about old war planes no one would have batted an eye, stricter security rules be damned.

    At the point when liquids were banned from planes, I remember boarding being an old (white) man who was carrying a bottle of water. The flight attendant at the door saw it and motioned to the one coming up the aisle who looked at it as he walked by, shrugged her shoulders and moved on. What the hell??!

    I’m not saying it’s always about race, but as others here have said…if you’ve stood out your whole life and been under suspicion just for the way you look…well then yeah, that’s how it’s going to feel to you.