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Flight Risk: What Does Serial Stowaway Marilyn Hartman's Spree Reveal? 

Tuesday, Sep 9 2014

When 62-year-old Marilyn Hartman was arrested attempting to board a flight to Hawaii sans ticket at San Francisco International Airport in February, she told authorities she just wanted to go somewhere warm while fighting cancer. Kickstarter campaigns were inaugurated on behalf of the woman who was soon elevated to internet folk hero status.

But it turned out Hartman no longer suffers from cancer. And, in short order, she proceeded to get herself arrested at SFO half a dozen more times; clandestinely board a flight at San Jose International and fly to Los Angeles; get herself arrested at LAX (fliers with her photo were distributed to personnel there); and, finally, get popped in Phoenix, twice — once for trying to pass through security without a ticket.

Addressing the Arizona media, Hartman claimed to be the decades-long victim of FBI persecution. She's proffered this conspiracy on her blog since 2012 — on which she also boasts about sneaking onto airplanes and flying about the nation.

With the ever-present specter of international terrorism drummed into airline passengers, one shoeless march through the metal detector at a time, should we be concerned that a distinctive and admittedly mentally ill woman has managed to board airplanes and take off?

A platoon of aviation security experts say no. The airlines, however, should be concerned.

"It's a very minor security issue," says Jeff Price, a professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State University in Denver. "On the airline revenue side, someone took a flight for free! They should be upset about that." Adds security expert Bruce Schneier, who has made a pastime of sneaking contraband past TSA agents, "She was screened. She got through airport security and got on a plane. So, security worked. There is no security risk. But the ticket agents were sloppy about who gets on the plane."

Perhaps a kung-fu army of unarmed passengers with malign intent could hijack a plane. "But a 62-year-old is not likely to take over a plane via strong-arm methods," says Robert Baker, a retired professor of global security and intelligence at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

If no harm has been done — other than airlines and the justice system being tapped — has Hartman's stow-a-thon done any good? Perhaps: Baker's Embry-Riddle colleague professor Richard Bloom notes that every incident ought to trigger an "after-action analysis." Price adds that airport personnel, like cops, must become better-versed in humanely dealing with the mentally ill.

Ultimately, however, society benefits when security risks are mitigated far before they reach the airport. And, in Hartman's case, it would also be for the best if her problems were addressed long before her next attempt to secret herself aboard a plane.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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