Laura Armstrong: The curious case of Air Tran flight 297
by Laura Armstrong
Columnist
December 06, 2009 01:00 AM | 33605 views | 34 34 comments | 133 133 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In the age of balloon boys and party crashers, regular people just don't know what to believe any more.

Last week, I spent more than my share of hours trying to track down the truth about an incident on an AirTran flight out of Atlanta on Nov. 17.

Flight 297 to Houston, with about 70 passengers onboard, departed gate C-16 at 4:43 p.m. Until something happened that caused the pilot to turn around and come back.

Two and a half weeks later, the incident is in high dispute, thanks to some passengers who have spoken out on the Internet about what they say is a cover-up by AirTran and other transportation officials. This has been heating up since Tuesday, when one passenger's e-mail about the events he saw on the plane went viral, and the saga isn't over yet.

Initial media reports from Nov. 18 indicate the cause of the plane's turnaround was a single passenger who refused to turn off an electronic device. Some accounts said cell phone, some said video camera, but the bottom line is the flight crew felt something was amiss enough to turn around after they'd left the gate - no small occurrence.

In the now infamous e-mail (AirTran refers to it on their Web site www.inside airtran.com as "Flight 297 - Anatomy of an Urban Legend") a Texas man writes about an orchestrated attempt by a group of 13 men, which he characterizes as Muslim, to intimidate flight attendants and passengers.

His colorful description of the troublemakers boarding the plane, spreading out to their seats and then being uncooperative and verbally abusive toward flight attendants and other passengers hit my mailbox Tuesday, having been forwarded by the writer's friend, a former Marine and NASA employee, who also included his name, address and phone number.

Even as people scrambled to substantiate the e-mail, Muslim and leftist Web sites began characterizing the writer and anyone who thought it might have merit as "right wing racists." They immediately initiated a campaign to discredit and ridicule the writer, who actually had the audacity to speak boldly about the escalating fear and anger on the flight, though he admitted to me yesterday he'd taken artistic license with a couple points, never imagining it would travel beyond his circle of friends. He's not a journalist, and has no wish to become the next Joe the Plumber, he said.

His account, not intended for publication, focused on Arabic-speaking men using a number of tactics to upset the aircraft, such as taking photos of passengers, getting up and down from their seats at inappropriate times and intimidating others. The e-mail has, unfortunately, overshadowed the real story.

From AirTran, we know that the captain of Flight 297 felt it necessary to turn his plane around after leaving the gate. Once there the troublemakers were removed and questioned in what turned into a two-hour delay. And then, amazingly, all but two were allowed to reboard for the trip to Houston.

What ensued, according to the disputed e-mail as well as a new and highly credible eyewitness, was a small rebellion on board, with crew and at least a dozen passengers refusing to continue the flight.

Meanwhile, another Texas eyewitness, Dr. Keith Robinson, had been scheduled on the flight, but had missed his connection. He told his version of "the obvious commotion" at the gate, and added by phone he had offered his services as an ordained chaplain during the two-hour delay, but was rebuffed by AirTran officials.

"Gate agents expressed solemn concern" after the plane returned, he said, so he knew something was amiss. When the crew and a dozen passengers finally deplaned, some were openly sobbing and "anger and fear were etched on their faces."

Robinson, a good-natured man of God who formerly worked in restorative prosthodontics at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, eventually got on the plane.

"Chaplains are supposed to go where other people don't want to be," he explained. His account, also posted on the Internet, was written during the flight. He told me the Arabic-speaking men were quiet when he was on the flight, but that the tension was palpable. He believes the decision to allow the group back on the plane was based on fear of lawsuits.

"But is it inappropriate for Americans to stand together," he asked me, "draw a line in the sand and say this type of incident will not happen? Don't we have a duty to stand against this kind of intimidation?"

On Friday, AirTran spokesman Christopher White, formerly with the TSA, was snide and rude when I called to inquire about the incident. He refused to answer questions and referred me to the above-mentioned website, which is not an official statement from AirTran but a public rebuking of a customer's circulating e-mail. Note to Chris: putting a customer's writing on your site making him a target for death threats and ridicule seems rather irresponsible for a major airline. I hope someone reviews your qualifications as spokesperson.

Then, Saturday, AirTran went further, posting the assertion that the disputed e-mail writer from Texas, according to "legally binding" flight manifests, wasn't on the plane (just in case any of us believe the "urban legend" he supposedly made up out of thin air to get attention he isn't seeking,,, or something).

The e-mail writer told me today AirTran is lying and he has his boarding pass, but I'm beyond this by now, because I discovered another highly credible eyewitness to the incident was none other than Cobb businessman and security expert Brent C. Brown, CEO of Chesley-Brown International.

Brown, who is also chairman of the Marietta History Museum, confirmed late Saturday that he was on Flight 297 and that there was chaos on the plane. He believes the entire incident was mishandled by AirTran officials, though has kind words for the pilot, who he said, "was dead right" in his decision-making, and is to be commended for turning the plane around.

Seated in the third row in business class, he said it was obvious the suspicious men were interacting with each other and refusing to sit down, grounds for the pilot's decision.

Once back at the gate, however, Brown says there were no law enforcement officials visible (this contradicts the Texan's e-mail) and airline officials weren't talking to the passengers, who were openly upset and refusing to fly.

"The tension on board was incredible," Brown said. The men who came back on board after questioning were belligerent and smirking, and the people who got off, he confirmed, were traumatized.

So the story evolves. And in this age of jihadi Army officers and internet hoaxes, us regular folk continue to seek the truth.

Lbarmstrong3378@comcast.net
Comments
(34)
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thesilvershields
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October 23, 2011
Samuel Adams, you are mistaken: Christianity and Islam have much in common, notwithstanding the same God, Jesus as the 'Messiah,' and the same Hebrew patriarchs. Furthermore, to say Christianity is a religion of peace proves you know absolutely nothing about its history. You are a hypocrite, which is far worse than any "terrorist" threat" that hypothetically exists. No religion is a religion of peace, period. To preach your ignorant view of a god to others that have no interest in listening is in no way peaceful. Get that through your head.
Larry Miller
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January 28, 2010
So Aloysius, what your saying is that the statement made by the Pilot and Flight Crew, when they walked off the plane and possibly away from their very careers, is just not enough for you? I guess you just see them as uninformed. inexperienced and untrained bystanders, and not as the most professionally prepared individuals on the scene to size up the threat to the passengers and plane? Call me gullible but if I am ever on a flight that the captain and crew refuse to fly on I am getting off, and you can have my seat OK? On the one hand all we ever hear is the need for increased vigilance, and how not enough can be done to secure our flights. But let something like this come up and well. How dare we error on the side of caution. Take my seat please.
Gbelle
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January 05, 2010
Just received the email today and upon investigating, found myself at this website. As a flight attendant for a major US carrier, I would have to say that it is a really big deal for a flight crew to walk off an airplane. This is not something done lightly--the crew can be charged with insubordination and termination. I have only seen a crew refuse to take a plane once in almost 32 years of flying, and it involved a safety issue with the airplane. Does it sound like a "dry run"? Absolutely, and let's not forget what happened on Christmas Day on the Detroit flight. Anyone who flies, get to know your seatmate and alert your flight attendant to anything suspicious.
Uncle Sam
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December 27, 2009
In light of the Christmas day attempt on the Detroit bound flight, I believe Air Tran has some major rethinking to do on both its policies and procedures when it comes to this type of incident. Is it possible that the e-mail written by the Texas man, exaggerated or not, might have inspired other flyers to be more pro-active when it comes to stopping potential attacks? I hope so, and more needs to be written on the topic if we're going to be able to prevent these types of incidents.
SouthCountryMom
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December 11, 2009
AMERICANS! It is time we STAND UP, BAND TOGETHER, and restore some sanity through realistic thinking. If our Think-Tankers and the powers-that-be cannot seem to, then it is up to us to take the lead!

To the captain and the crew of Air Tran Flight 297 I say, "Hooo-aaah! I am proud of you!"
graceheartland
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December 11, 2009
Good article. This story is so perplexing, one hardly knows what to believe but I applaud the columnist for at least attempting to present the facts from passengers who, because of emotions are highly susceptible to false memories and from an airline that has everything to lose if it admits this was or at least FELT very much like a 'terrorist dry run'. The best advice I've every gotten is to trust my gut in every situation, if something feels dangerous or wrong it probably is. This flight crew is fully trained, flies every single day and knows what every bump and sound means. If they felt endangered by what was happening on board so much that they not only turned the plane around but THEN refused to continue their assignment with those men on board there must be a very good reason for it. What has happened to America that you cannot even question what is obviously bad, disruptive behavior? Part of the problem with this country is that we do not have taboos, we do not hold our neighbors to high standards. These people at the very least were guilty of bad behavior, worse possibly cruel behavior, preying on the inner fears of already traumatized Americans but even more insidious, they may have been testing the system for a future attack by using our very weaknesses (politically correct mandates) to get us from within. I applaud this flight crew and the passengers who walked off the plane. I would do the same thing. I've been on plenty of flights since 911 with Arabic or middle eastern appearing people without incident. But any passenger (regardless of ethnic origin)who is causing a scene or making people uncomfortable should be escorted off. The minority can and should NEVER dictate to the majority. In this case a plane full of people who were not being disruptive should not have their rights trampled on by a few who were. Stand up America and trust your gut again. It is a survival skill we too often ignore.
Samuel Adams
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December 10, 2009
Rick, to say that Christianity and Islam are the same is an equivocation that makes no sense at all. The tenets of Islam couldn't be farther from Christianity. To say Islam is a religion of peace is a stretch at best, and a lie on Islam's best day. Just read more about it, if they haven't censured all the books yet.
anonymous
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December 10, 2009
@Sakeith1956:

You know what's really tired? How some people find a way to connect Obama to EVERY problem in the universe.

Give it a rest.
anonymousII
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April 04, 2013
Much like George W. Bush was blamed for high gas prices during his presidency and blamed for all America's ills since O's election.
porkido
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December 10, 2009
"But is it inappropriate for Americans to stand together," he asked me, "draw a line in the sand and say this type of incident will not happen? Don't we have a duty to stand against this kind of intimidation?"

Dr. Robinson is trafficking in hearsay and guesswork...he wasn't on the plane when the incident occurred, yet has a very specific opinion about it...and his "nature", whether good or otherwise, is irrelevant to this fact.

Rick W
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December 10, 2009
The references to all people of the Islamic faith being terrorists is akin to saying that all Christians are members of the Klu Klux Klan. There certainly are extremeists in all groups...we just have to stop generalizing.
brother from another
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December 09, 2009
FlyingHigh wrote on Tuesday, Dec 08 at 12:19 AM »

@HenryNOLA.. FYI, just because a passenger wasn't on the manifest DOES NOT mean that he wasn't on the flight. Happens all the time.

---------------



except that it doesn't

this smacks of dan rather's "fake but accurate" account of bush.

heh.
Sakeith1956
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December 09, 2009
Nancy, you asked, "Why has this become such a divided, partisan issue?"

I'll tell you why, radical Muslims were supposed to hate Americans ONLY when Bush was president. Now that Obama is in office, we're supposed to have world peace. To admit otherwise, undermines the lefts frame of reference!
Pierre Investigator
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December 08, 2009
RE: Can you confirm this story about AIRTRAN 297?

Monday, December 7, 2009 1:44 PM

Nancy Simpson" This is to confirm that Mr. Brown was on the flight and the statements quoted below are accurate.



Nancy M. Simpson

Vice President – Support Services

Chesley Brown International

Nancy W.
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December 08, 2009
Why has this become such a divided, partisan issue? Are we not all Americans, concerned for the safety of our airlines? Why are people demonizing someone who circulated an e-mail stating that something went more wrong on that flight than was initially reported? And how can people be so quick to blame a passenger, rather than the Muslim troublemakers? My only conclusions are that there are a lot of people who don't want the truth to come out. Perhaps some are airline employees, some share the religion of the troublemakers and perhaps some are actually wishing for another incident so they might celebrate another victory for the side who hates America. I hope more passengers will come forward and share their version of events, but I can see how they don't want to get involved. One side (and it's not the conservative side)is trying to shoot the messengers. They must be very afraid the truth will hurt their cause.
FlyingHigh
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December 08, 2009
@HenryNOLA.. FYI, just because a passenger wasn't on the manifest DOES NOT mean that he wasn't on the flight. Happens all the time.
FlyingHigh
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December 08, 2009
Mike B. you are incorrect. The "staff" as you call us handled the situation exactly how it should have been handled. The Flight Attendants advised the Capt. of the problem, the Capt. did a gate return, the comapny refused to stand behind the crew and the crew refused to take the flight. As a Flight Attendant I can put all of the guessing to rest by advising the public that when an ENTIRE Flight Crew REFUSES to take a flight SOMETHING IS TERRIBLY WRONG! Is there a cover-up? Absolutely! Was this a "dry-run?" I'd bet my life on it.
The Commentator
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December 07, 2009
Thank you, Ms Armstrong, for your intelligently written, factual, and I will say, courageous follow-up to this disturbing story. Politically correct avoidance of naming names and making the valid correlations is epidemic in the media, the society, and among politicians; it is refreshing to read one who has sought the truth, instead of having perpetuated deceit.
Cobb Mom
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December 07, 2009
Thanks, Laura! I was happy to see your article. When I recieved this email last week, I did a lot of searching for information about this on the internet. At that time, even Snopes and Truth or Fiction were listing the email by Tedd Petruna as "true". WSB just had an interview with Brent Brown. (whom was interviewed in Ms. Armstrong's article) He agrees with the writer of the email. I feel like Air Tran is trying to cover this up to avoid law suits and unnecessary and unpleasant publicity. Wake up, America. Our freedoms are being diminished right before our eyes.
Judi E J
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September 03, 2012
Tired of the PC approach to everything. We "MUST' stand up and be counted. To avoid conflict was in error on Air Trans part. I will not fly with them. Safety not law

suites must be upheld.
Aloysius
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December 07, 2009
This is an example of American society at its most brilliant and enlightened.

Despite evidence to the contrary - or at least numerous questions about the validity of the accounts of what transpired on this flight - most of the posters here are convinced that this was practically 9/11 all over again. Yikes.

Okay, yes, Tedd Petruna is an American hero who managed to save the flight from certain destruction and those who would call us "infidel dogs" while briefly distracted from watching porn despite never having set foot on the plane. I'll grant everyone that bit of absurd logic. Let's give him a parade, the key to a bunch of cities, and name him People's Sexiest Man Alive and get on with it.

The question I'd love an answer to, however, is if all of this transpired, why has NO ONE else come forward? Please, please, please: Someone offer a reasonable explanation of that. Are all the other passengers so traumatized that they can't speak about this? Is the big bad evil liberal media complicit with AirTrans in shutting up all the other passengers? Have the passengers been ordered never to speak of the events that occurred on Flight 297 under the threat of getting seated next to a big fat sweaty guy on all future flights?

Seriously: Why have not more passengers come forward?
Jim26
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December 07, 2009
To henryNOLA, I read the AJC column you mentioned from the so called new witness. It had this statement.

"The 11 others in the 13-passenger group got back on the plane, which took off for Houston, White said. TSA officials spoke to the man with the electronic device as well as the other person who was acting as an interpreter, and they took a later flight to Houston, White said.

Deveikis said she remembers the original members of the group reboarding.

Deveikis, who often flies to Houston for business, chose to remain on the flight. She said the man with the camera and his entire group reboarded the plane. The whole incident, which scared other passengers who weren't clear what was happening, could have easily been avoided."

As you can see, AirTran said the man who caused the problem and his interpreter didn't return to the flight. Deveikis said the entire group returned to the flight, including the perp.

So, who's telling the truth?
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