Would You Like the Chicken, the Beef or the Cocaine?

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You know those airline meal carts — the ones that bump your knees and block the way to the toilet. Well, the ones on American Airlines flights from Colombia have been carrying a lot more than just bland airline food. Drug Enforcement Administration agents arrested more than 50 employees of the airline and its subcontractors in Miami Wednesday, after exposing a scheme in which drugs were concealed in the carts loaded in Colombia and then removed on arrival in the U.S. An undercover sting operation had also enticed the suspects into smuggling weapons and explosives aboard planes. Agents began investigating the smuggling ring after in-flight coffee, which an American pilot had complained was too weak, turned out to have been accidentally laced with heroin.

American has cooperated with the investigation, which involved some of its ground staff but no air crews, but it may still suffer negative publicity. Only three days ago, Colombian authorities announced that they’d smashed a drug ring which had infiltrated a company involved in the maintenance of American Airlines planes. In that case, the smugglers had transported heroin in secret compartments accessible only to technical staff. To compound its p.r. problems, American is the target of a government antitrust suit that started last May, and one of its planes crashed in June while landing during a storm in Little Rock, Ark., killing nine people. But the airline can count itself as but one of many unwitting mules — after all, according to the Washington Post, Colombian drug exports to the U.S. currently run at an estimated 165 tons of cocaine and 6 tons of heroin each year. That ought to make all airlines take a hard look under the seats.