Category Archive 'AirTran Flight 297'

04 Dec 2009

AirTran Flight 297: Panic and Misunderstanding or Terrorist Dry Run?

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AirTran Flight 297 was scheduled to leave Atlanta on November 17th at 4:43 PM en route to Houston’s Hobby Airport. An incident occurred in which a flight attendant took away a cell phone from a Middle Eastern passenger who refused to turn it off during takeoff.

Accounts differ considerable about what occurred. Some (Yehudi, Robinson) describe very alarming behavior on the part of the Muslim passengers. One account describes a physical confrontation between other passengers and one of the Muslims. Another account fails to describe either.

Subsequently, the passenger and a group of twelve others he was traveling with were removed from the plane. Two and a half hours later, the Muslims were allowed to reboard and Flight 297 departed missing a dozen or so of the original passengers who declined to continue. The original air crew apparently had been replaced. The plane ultimately arrived safely in Houston.

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Chaplain Keith A. Robinson gives a second-hand account of the initial incident quoting an unidentified other passenger.

(H)e related that when Flight 297 left the concourse the first time it began taxiing to take off when approximately 12 men of Middle Eastern appearance stood up and began dancing and singing in an Arabic dialect. They refused to be seated when directed to do so by the flight attendants. Then, the singing stopped and some of the men took out their cell phones and began taking pictures of the other individual passengers. Again, the men were ordered to be seated by the flight crew and refused while continuing to take their pictures. Next, the de‐boarded passenger related that a few of the men gestured with imaginary guns as their fingers, indicating with their triggering action that they would shoot the people on the plane.

The flight crew declared an emergency and the plane returned to the concourse. The 12 men were taken to another area of the airport and questioned. It is my understanding that their luggage was removed and checked. Then, ten of the men were allowed to get back on the plane. That’s when the 12‐15 passengers decided that they wanted to get off that plane and
take other flights. This ordeal had gone on approximately 2 hours to this point.

Robinson joined the flight when it finally departed. He describes “sinister” laughter from the reboarded Muslim passenger and perceived considerable apprehension on the part of some of his fellow travelers, but reports no actual further threatening behavior.

Nonetheless, Robinson concludes expressing strong opposition to the Middle Easterners having been allowed to re-board. He also contends that at the time of the initial incident other passengers should have attacked the Muslims and forced them back into their seats.

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According to this account, posted in a series of comments to a November 18th news agency account by someone signing himself Yehudi, passengers (including Yehudi) actually did force two Muslims to sit down.

One week ago, I went to Ohio on business and to see my father. On Tuesday, November the 17th, I returned home. If you read the papers the 18th you may have seen a blurb where a AirTran flight was cancelled from Atlanta to Houston due to a man who refused to get off of his cell phone before takeoff. It was on Fox. This was NOT what happened. I was in 1st class coming home. 11 Muslim men got on the plane in full attire. 2 sat in 1st class and the rest peppered themselves throughout the plane all the way to the back. As the plane taxied to the runway the stewardesses gave the safety spiel we are all so familiar with. At that time, one of the men got on his cell and called one of his companions in the back and proceeded to talk on the phone in Arabic very loudly and very aggressively. This took the 1st stewardess out of the picture for she repeatedly told the man that cell phones were not permit (sic)

To which one of the men said “shut up infidel dog!” She went to take the camcorder and he began to scream in her face in Arabic. At that exact moment, all 11 of them got up and started to walk the cabin. This is where I had had enough! I got up and started to the back where I heard a voice behind me from another Texan twice my size say “I got your back.” I grabbed the man who had been on the phone by the arm and said “you WILL go sit down or you Will be thrown from this plane!” As I “led” him around me to take his seat, the fellow Texan grabbed him by the back of his neck and his waist and headed out with him. I then grabbed the 2nd man and said, “You WILL do the same!” He protested but adrenaline was flowing now and he was going to go. As I escorted him forward the plane doors open and 3 TSA agents and 4 police officers entered. Me and my new Texan friend were told to cease and desist for they had this under control. I was happy to oblige actually.

There was some commotion in the back, but within moments, all 11 were escorted off the plane. They then unloaded their luggage. We talked about the occurrence and were in disbelief that it had happen, when suddenly, the door open again and on walked all 11!! Stone faced, eyes front and robotic (the only way I can describe it). The stewardess from the back had been in tears and when she saw this, she was having NONE of it! Being that I was up front, I heard and saw the whole ordeal. She told the TSA agent there was NO WAY she was staying on the plane with these men. The agent told her they had searched them and were going to go through their luggage with a fine tooth comb and that they were allowed to proceed to Houston. The captain and co-captain came out and told the agent “we and our crew will not fly this plane!” After a word or two, the entire crew, luggage in tow, left the plane. 5 minutes later, the cabin door opened again and a whole new crew walked on.

“Yehudi” is identified in this collection of sources on the incident as Tedd Petruna. His account is clearly mistaken in stating that the flight was canceled.

UPDATE, 12/9: The Atlanta Constitution identifies the Yehudi account as originating with a Facebook entry by Theodore Petruna, and then proceeds to demonstrate that Mr. Petruna was not on Flight 297, thus debunking his story.

Friday afternoon, AirTran responded to Petruna’s allegations in a point-by-point response to his e-mail, posted on the airline’s internal Web site and made available to the media.

“There are no reports of any passenger standing up in a threatening manner,” according to the AirTran statement. “At no time was there any physical altercation between passengers.”

Although AirTran previously had declined to release the flight manifest, that changed Friday evening. In addition to discounting Petruna’s story, the airline responded to the amount of attention it believed the circulated e-mail was gaining, White said.

There was no way Petruna could have seen what he described on Flight 297, AirTran said in a statement. Petruna departed from Akron-Canton, Ohio, on AirTran Flight 205 on Nov. 17, officials said. He was supposed to connect to Flight 297 for Houston, but he missed his first flight out of Ohio. And therefore, he missed the connecting flight.

AirTran said Flight 297 first left its gate at 4:40 p.m., “a full 26 minutes before Flight 205 arrived at the gate in Atlanta, making this flight connection impossible.

Hat tip to Spook86.

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Atlanta Journal-Constitution account quoting passenger Nancy Deveikis and AirTran spokesman Christopher White.

White says a passenger refused to turn off a cell phone because he did not understand English. Deveikis says passenger was looking at a camera.

Deveikis believed the whole thing was simply a misunderstanding and a case of overreaction by the flight attendant.

Deveikis, who often flies to Houston for business, chose to remain on the flight. She said the man with the camera and his entire group reboarded the plane. The whole incident, which scared other passengers who weren’t clear what was happening, could have easily been avoided.

“Just one flight attendant snowed everyone into believing she had an irate passenger,” Deveikis said.

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Snopes classifies the terrorism threat as unproven.

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The incident sounds fairly alarming on the bases of two accounts, but one of them is second hand and the other is basically anonymous, so I have to agree with Snopes.


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