In mid-November 2009, a brief Associated Press news account reported an incident that had taken place on an AirTran Airways flight from Atlanta to Houston, one which resulted in the plane's returning to the gate and departing 2½ hours late due to a passenger who would not shut off his cell phone when so directed by a flight attendant.
A fuller article published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who interviewed a woman seated directly behind the passenger in question, provided more detail: The passenger with the cell phone was part of a larger group (eleven others, plus an interpreter) seated throughout the plane; the passenger and the interpreter were asked to step off the plane (the other eleven members of the group also left the plane, although they eventually reboarded the same flight, while the passenger and the interpreter took a later flight); twelve other passengers also took up the airline's offer to allow them to leave the plane and take a different flight; and a new crew eventually manned the flight when it finally departed.
An AirTran spokesman said the issue was a simple matter of a passenger who would not turn off his cell phone when directed (a situation complicated by the passenger's inability to speak English), requiring the flight to return to the gate:
It's unclear whether he was talking on the phone, snapping photos or texting, AirTran spokesman Christopher White said. But to airline officials and flight attendants, it didn't matter. The Boeing 717 had pulled away from the gate, and the phone was on, White said.
"Flight attendants were telling him, 'Turn off the phone, turn off the phone,'" White said.
"We can't taxi with the cell phone on, and we certainly can't take off," White said. "Language barrier or not, you start to butt up against interfering with a flight crew."
Although the incident was reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said it would not follow up, as it was a customer service issue and not a security issue:
"Passengers are required to follow instructions of the flight attendants," regional FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said. AirTran reported the incident to the FAA, Bergen said. The federal Transportation Security Administration will not handle the incident, saying it is a customer-service issue between the passenger and the airline, a TSA spokesman said.
The woman on the flight who was interviewed by the Journal-Constitution maintained that the passenger in question had a camera, not a cell phone, and that the incident was merely one of confusion involving a non-English speaking passenger which was blown out of proportion due to "poor communication":
The woman sitting behind the man said it wasn't a phone at all, and feels the entire incident was the result of poor communication.
"He was not talking on a cell phone, it was a camera," said Nancy Deveikis of Marietta. "He was looking at pictures."
A flight attendant asked the man twice to turn off the device, Deveikis said. But it was clear the man did not speak English, she said. Although the man was traveling with others, the rest of the group was seated throughout the plane.
When the man did not respond to the flight attendant, she took the camera from him, Deveikis said.
"She grabbed it from his hand and basically said I'll be holding this until you get off the plane," Deveikis said.
Deveikis said she never heard the one flight attendant use the word "phone" when speaking to the man.
[Deveikis said] 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.
Shortly after these events, a widely circulated account of the incident appeared on the Internet from Todd Petruna, who maintained that he was a passenger on the referenced flight and that what really took place was quite different than what was reported in the news. According to Petruna, Muslim passengers on the flight were potential terrorists who were making a "dry run" at hijacking an airliner:
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 permitted at the time. He ignored her as if she was not there.
The 2nd man who answered the phone did the same and this took out the 2nd stewardess. In the back of the plane at this time, 2 younger Muslims, one in the back, isle, and one in front of him, window, began to show footage of a porno they had taped the night before, and were very loud about it. Now ... they are only permitted to do this prior to Jihad. If a Muslim man goes into a strip club, he has to view the woman via mirror with his back to her. (don't ask me ... I don't make the rules, but I've studied).
The 3rd stewardess informed them that they were not to have electronic devices on at this time. 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 Ã¢??we and our crew will not fly this plane!Ã¢?Â 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.
Again ... this is where I had had enough!!! I got up and asked "What the hell is going on!?!?" I was told to take my seat. They were sorry for the delay and I would be home shortly. I said "I'm getting off this plane". The stewardess sternly told me that she could not allow me to get off. (now I'm mad!) I said "I am a grown man who bought this ticket, who's time is mine with a family at home and I am going through that door, or I'm going through that door with you under my arm!! But I am going through that door!!" And I heard a voice behind me say "so am I". Then everyone behind us started to get up and say the same. Within 2 minutes, I was walking off that plane where I was met with more agents who asked me to write a statement. I had 5 hours to kill at this point so why the hell not. Due to the amount of people who got off that flight, it was cancelled. I was supposed to be in Houston at 6pm. I got here at 12:30am.
Look up the date. Flight 297 Atlanta to Houston.
If this wasn't a dry run, I don't know what one is. They wanted to see how TSA would handle it, how the crew would handle it, and how the passengers would handle it.
I'm telling this to you because I want you to know ...
The threat is real. I saw it with my own eyes ...
In anther account, a chaplain who was originally slated to fly on Flight 297 (but had arrived late and missed the initial boarding) reported that another passenger who left the plane before its eventual take-off told him that, as stated in Todd Petruna's message, the incident involved more than the single passenger mentioned by AirTran representatives and news reports:
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 [using their fingers] as imaginary guns, indicating with their triggering action that they would shoot the people on the plane.
However, none of the news accounts of the Flight 297 incident mentioned members of a passenger group screaming insults at the flight crew or being bodily ejected from the plane by other passengers.
On 4 December 2009, AirTran issued a point-by-point rebuttal of the original account, maintaining (among other statements) that the members of the group in question were dressed just like other passengers (rather than in "Muslim attire"), that there were no reports of their screaming insults at crew members, that there were no reports of any of them standing up in a threatening manner, that there were no physical altercations between any passengers, that the group's bags were not removed from the plane, that none of the group members was determined to pose a security threat, that there was no TSA agent on the plane, and that no passenger was refused permission to get off the plane:
On November 17, 2009, AirTran flight 297 was scheduled to travel from Atlanta to Houston-Hobby. During taxi a passenger was non-compliant with Crew Members, using a cell phone and taking pictures. The flight taxied back to the gate and the passenger, who did not speak English, and his companion acting as his interpreter were asked to de-plane. They were met by customer service personnel and TSA.
The passengers were allowed to re-board and continued on the flight after speaking with AirTran and TSA representatives. The flight was delayed by more than two hours.
Since the flight and initial media reports, several blogs and Internet sites have recounted the incident as portrayed by a passenger originally scheduled for the flight. Below is that passenger's account (unedited in any way including spelling and grammar), as reported on several blogs. Highlighted between the passenger's account, are the factually accurate circumstances surrounding this incident.
We bring this to your attention in order to dispel myths that are beginning to make the rounds in chat rooms, blogs and conspiracy theorists' Web sites.
AirTran also issued a statement maintaining that Todd Petruna not actually a passenger on Flight 297:
After conducting additional research into this situation, we have verified, according to flight manifests (legally binding documents) that the individual that allegedly created a first-hand account of events on-board AirTran Airways flight 297, a Theodore Petruna, was never actually on-board the flight.
According to all available records, Mr. Petruna's trip originated from Akron-Canton, Ohio (CAK) on AirTran flight 205. This flight arrived at the gate in Atlanta at 5:06 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Flight 297, the flight which Mr. Petruna allegedly wrote a first-hand account of, originally pushed back from its gate in Atlanta at 4:40 p.m. EST, a full 26 minutes before flight 205 arrived at the gate in Atlanta, making this flight connection impossible.
While Mr. Petruna was originally scheduled to begin his journey on AirTran flight 202 from CAK and connect to flight 297 in Atlanta he did not make that original flight.
According to a Marietta Daily Journal reporter and Houston station KHOU-TV, the e-mail's author acknowledged he had embellished his account but maintained that he was in fact on the flight:
He admits that his description of the men's attire was wrong, [that] he didn't personally see anyone watching pornographic videos, [and that] he'd taken artistic license with a couple points, never imagining [his account] would travel beyond his circle of friends.
AirTran [posted] the assertion that the disputed e-mail writer from Texas, according to "legally binding" flight manifests, wasn't on the plane.
The e-mail writer [said] AirTran is lying and he has his boarding pass.
Another Flight 297 passenger interviewed in a video made available by Atlanta television station WSB stated that although he did see a number of Middle Eastern passengers on the flight walking around, interacting with each other, and being uncooperative with the flight crew, and although he felt AirTran mishandled the incident (primarily by not communicating information about the situation to other passengers), none of the group in question was dancing, singing, taking pictures, or ended up being manhandled off the airplane by other passengers. He also stated that he talked to the pilots on the replacement crew, who reported they felt perfectly safe in flying the plane, and that he thought the claim the group of Middle Easterners were potential hijackers or terrorists to be "far-fetched."
Contrary to common belief, the fact that a replacement crew was used to complete the flight is not an indicator that the original flight crew refused to continue or felt the situation to be unsafe. When flights experience substantial delays in taking off, as Flight 297 did that day, that situation sometimes requires that the original crew be replaced because otherwise they would "time out" and exceed FAA limitations on maximum hours per working period.