Last week, we reported on unusual events that occurred during a recent AirTran flight between Atlanta and Houston. E-mail accounts of the incident suggested a possible terrorist "dry run," with several passengers (of Middle Eastern descent) creating a disturbance--aimed at testing airline security--as the jetliner prepared for departure from Atlanta.
The narrative also produced an apparent hero, a man named Todd Petruna. When the Arab men began "to walk the cabin," Petruna and a fellow passenger confronted them, and forced the trouble-makers back into their seats. Moments later, personnel from the Transportation Security Administration arrived on the aircraft and took control of the incident.
According to e-mailed versions of events, passengers were surprised to discover that the Middle Eastern men were allowed to remain on the flight (after being questioned by security agents). Eventually, a second crew was brought on the plane to handle the flight and after a lengthy delay, Flight 297 finally took off for Houston, arriving there after midnight.
The scenario sounds frightening; it doesn't take a lot of imagination to conjure up images of a hi-jacking, were it not for the quick actions of Mr. Petruna and that other passenger. You'd think that AirTran would offer him some sort of reward.
But there's only one problem with the story of Todd Petruna and the events that transpired on Flight 297 back on 18 November. After a little checking, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered that Petruna wasn't on the flight on the date in question. While he was scheduled to be on that aircraft, Petruna didn't make the first leg of his flight, out of the Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio. As a result, he missed his scheduled connection on Flight 297.
Additionally, AirTran claims there were no altercations between passengers on the Atlanta-to-Houston flight. The airline also repeated its initial claims that the jet returned to the gate because a single passenger--a Middle Eastern man--refused to end his cell phone conversation.
While the AJC story paints a much different picture of Flight 297, it doesn't answer all of the questions raised by the incident. For example, the paper (and other media outlets) confirm that a replacement crew was brought onboard to fly the plane to Houston, after the first crew declined the assignment.
That decision was made by the Captain originally assigned to the flight. It's rather unusual for a pilot-in-command to decline an assignment, and take his crew off the aircraft. Chaplain Keith Robinson of Houston, who was allowed to board the aircraft after it returned to the gate area. Based on his conversations with passengers and crews, Robinson believes that some sort of "intentional intimidation" occurred during the first departure attempt. And apparently, that intimidation attempt was so disconcerting that the original crew refused to complete their flight to Houston.
In its p.r. response to the incident, AirTran has highlighted the fact that Ted Petruna wasn't on the Atlanta-to-Houston leg of the flight. Fair enough. If Petruna is claiming credit for non-existant heroics, he deserves public ridicule, condemnation and worse.
But Petruna's absence doesn't mitigate the fact that something serious occurred on AirTran Flight 297. At this point, no one will really say what happened, but it seems to be more complicated than a single, unruly passenger with a cell phone. Airline Captains don't make a habit of declining assignments and ordering their crew off the aircraft.
In the interest of full disclosure, AirTran should make the captain, the first officer and the cabin crews available to the press, and let them explain what transpired. Again, we're betting that the crew's description will be more disturbing than the "cell phone story" offered by the airline and the TSA.