Airline refutes Internet rumor that group performed terror 'dry run' on flight


Rumors continued to circulate Monday via e-mail and the Internet about what exactly happened on an AirTran flight at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in November.

At the time, AirTran told Channel 2 Action News that an unruly passenger on a cell phone forced the pilot to take the plane back to the gate. Monday, a passenger said the situation went well beyond that.

“It was extremely intense. I’ve never experienced anything like that,” said passenger Brent Brown.

Brown runs a security consultant company and is a frequent flier. But even for him, he said the events of Flight 297 were disturbing and frightening. As the Houston-bound flight taxied to the runway, several in a group of about a dozen men of Middle Eastern descent started walking the aisles and using their cell phones, Brown said.

Brown said he could tell from the flight attendants' actions that the situation was more than just a single passenger misbehaving.

"This was a big step ahead of that. You could tell that they were distressed and that they were getting very much uncooperative people in the back," said Brown. "So when the pilot turned the plane around, not only was I not surprised I was proud that he had made that effort to secure the cabin."

Back at the gate, Brown said the situation did not improve. He said he was sitting toward the front and he never saw law enforcement enter the plane. He also said that no one informed passengers of what was going on.

"They weren't speaking to us. And they didn't speak to us at all for at least an hour. Our only interaction was with the crew that was already upset at the way they were obviously being handled," said Brown.

Within days, the incident went viral on the Internet which prompted news coverage. Internet rumor control sites seemingly couldn’t make heads or tails of the incident. AirTran responded by posting an article that called most of the claims an "urban myth."

"And then after the fact, when (AirTran) apparently issued a statement that says, in effect, that this was a customer service issue or someone was on the phone...they're dead wrong," said Brown.

The crew, including the pilots, decided not to continue with the flight. Brown said AirTran put about 10 of the 12-man group back on the plane with a new crew. Most of the original passengers chose not to re-board and instead got on a different flight.

Because of privacy laws, the airline would not identify any of the men involved in the November incident.

An AirTran spokesman called the incident "isolated" and said the airline considers the case closed.

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