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.