U.S. flight diverted, escorted by F-15 fighters due to suspicious passenger

By Douglas J. Hagmann, Director

7 January 2010: A suspicious incident took place yesterday aboard Hawaiian Airlines Flight 39 that is being incorrectly portrayed by some in the media, causing some people to claim that the airline crew over reacted due to the near bombing of a passenger aircraft on Christmas Day.  While the media’s handling of the incident is not the story, the “spin” could be, but I will leave that for a future topic. For now, let’s look at the incident.

Hawaiian Airlines Flight 39, a Boeing 767-300 carrying 231 passengers and 10 crew members, departed from Portland, Oregon to its destination of Kahului, Hawaii. About 90 minutes into the flight, an as-yet unidentified 56 year-old male passenger from Salem, Oregon, traveling with a female companion, allegedly refused to stow a large, carry on duffle bag when instructed by flight attendants, quietly passed a note to the flight crew, and made a number of “suspicious remarks” that were interpreted as threatening.

His behavior, the contents of the note, and his subsequent comments were enough to cause the pilot to not only turn the plane back to Portland, but cause the aircraft to be intercepted and escorted by two US F-15 fighter jets. That, my friends, is no small matter or the seemingly knee-jerk reaction to an “unruly passenger,” especially when those passengers seated near the suspect had no clue anything was amiss aboard their flight.

According to passengers onboard, the pilot announced that they were returning to Portland due to “mechanical problems.” Well over the Pacific, the pilot turned back to Portland and ultimately made an accelerated and bumpy landing at the airport about two hours and 50 minutes after takeoff. The plane was then met by fire trucks and emergency personnel well away from the gate, where it was searched thoroughly by law enforcement personnel, bomb detection devices, and through other means.

Back at the gate, the man and his companion were taken into custody by local police and questioned by federal authorities. Despite the enormous expenditures involving the use of military and law enforcement assets, airline flight crews and their security personnel, fuel, and other related costs   caused by his actions, the offending passenger and his companion were, of course, later released. At this point, no charges have been filed, although the incident is under review by the U.S. State’s Attorney’s office.

Once at the airport, there was a two-hour delay as authorities searched the aircraft before allowing the remaining passengers to re-board. Of the remaining 229 passengers, three decided not to continue on the same aircraft, stating that they were too shaken by the incident. Meanwhile, there is the typical administrative blackout about the suspect, other than assuring the traveling public that the offending passenger and the incident have no ties to terrorists or to terrorism. And of course, because no charges have been filed, the identity of the passenger at the center of this incident has not been released.

Given the well known probes of airline security and incident response that have seen a significant uptick in 2009, someone needs to be asking some very specific questions about this incident. While it could out to be “nothing,” my investigative instinct (along with two F-15 fighter jets to intercept and escort the aircraft) suggest otherwise.

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