December 7, 2009

AirTran Flight 297: Terror “Dry Run” or Internet Hoax?

More articles by »
By: Phil Derner Jr.
Photo by Phil Derner, Jr.

Photo by Phil Derner, Jr.

A pair of passengers that were removed from an AirTran flight two weeks ago is now creating a story that is all the rage among email forwards and message board conversations around the internet.

As reported in Atlanta on November 18th, AirTran Flight 297 operating from Atlanta to Houston returned to the gate after a passenger refused to shut-off his cell phone while taxiing. The man did not speak English and was traveling with a group of 12 others spread out around the aircraft.

After an argument with the cabin crew, all 13 men were removed. Their persons and bags were inspected, cleared by security, and 11 of them were allowed back onto the aircraft. The crew then left, for what were initially unspecified reasons, and were replaced within minutes (thank God for being at their hub). The aircraft then departed with a two and a half hour delay.

But later on, a modified version of the story emerged. A man who claims to have been a passenger on the flight says that what transpired was a “dry run” for a future hijacking by terrorists.

The man says that the baker’s dozen were all dressed in full Muslim garb. In the back of the plane, two younger members of the group were refusing to turn off, not their phone, but a video camera. They were watching homemade pornography on it, which the writer explains is strictly forbidden in Islam, but only allowed before launching a terror attack.

Photo by Lukasz Wasiak

Photo by Lukasz Wasiak

The ensuing argument purportedly had the two men and their friends shouting, hurling insults at the flight attendants and dancing in the aisles, resulting in passengers physically escorting the men off of the aircraft. When 11 of them returned, the flight attendants were so upset by by their admittance that they left the aircraft in protest. In fact, the writer says that many passengers chose to take a different flight as well for the same reasons.

But which version is true? Is this an email forward intended to scare people by using an otherwise little-known aircraft incident? Or was it a way for these men to test the waters and see how crews and passengers would react to such outbursts in our post-9/11 era?

Even if the revised story is a hoax, it was enough to convince the FAA to launch an investigation into what happened on the aircraft. AirTran themselves have also come out and said that the name attached to the email was of a person that was not listed on the passenger manifest, and that there is no record of an altercation like the one described.

The varying accounts of what happened even gave the incident mention on the myth-busting website Snopes, where they believe it must be a mix of the two versions, leaving people to judge for themselves, while we see how easily a story of the threat of terror can spread through the internet with virility.