Failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad paid cash for his ticket to Dubai. You can still do that?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 4 2010 5:11 PM

Can You Still Pay Cash for a Plane Ticket?

Yes.

Newsweek details how Shahzad was able to board the plane  and reports that he was taken off before it pushed back from the gate.

Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the failed car-bomb attack on Times Square on Saturday, was pulled from a Dubai-bound plane on the runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Monday night. Shahzad reserved his seat on the way to the airport and paid in cash. Wait a minute—you can still pay for an international flight with cash?

Certainly. All major airlines accept cash at their ticket counters for both domestic and international travel. You can also use cash at many travel agencies. Your method of payment may result in additional screening—but, then again, it might not. The Transportation Security Administration refuses to fully detail the factors that trigger the dreaded secondary security screening under the CAPPS program. Many have speculated that paying cash for your ticket—along with last-minute bookings and one-way trips—is among them, but it wasn't one of the criteria in the TSA procedures manual that leaked in late 2009.

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Cash payments are a recurring theme in terrorist incidents. Some of the Sept. 11 hijackers paid cash for their tickets—one because his credit card was declined. Shoe bomber Richard Reid paid cash, although his method of payment, among other things, earned him additional screening that caused him to miss his original flight. And underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab used hard currency for his ticket in Ghana.

Many security advocates argue that paying cash should trigger automatic secondary security procedures. Opponents raise a couple of concerns. Airlines haven't released data on what percentage of tickets are purchased with cash, so we don't know how much additional security would be involved. Also, paying cash for plane tickets is common in developing areas like West Africa, where credit cards are hard to come by and are often fraudulent, adding an element of racism and classism to the issue. A White House review of security procedures, launched after the underwear-bomber incident, might include a proposal to require foreign airlines to report all cash transactions.

As far as the U.S. Supreme Court is concerned, paying cash at the airport is a shady activity. In 1984, government agents stopped a traveler at Honolulu International Airport based, in part, on his $2,100 cash payment for the ticket from Miami—all $20 bills. When the authorities found a kilogram of cocaine in his carry-on luggage, the trafficker challenged the legality of the search. Seven of the justices noted that "[m]ost business travelers, we feel confident, purchase airline tickets by credit card or check so as to have a record for tax or business purposes, and few vacationers carry with them thousands of dollars in $20 bills."

Slate V: Audio from the alleged bomber's plane:

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Explainer thanks Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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