A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

What Happened on Flight 297?


Q: Did Muslim terrorists stage a "dry run" on AirTran flight 297?

A: The airline and an eyewitness say this e-mailed claim is "an urban legend" spread by persons who "live in a fantasy world."

FULL QUESTION

Did the Nov. 17, 2009, incident with Muslims on Flight 297 (Atlanta to Houston) really happen? The story is as follows:

One week ago, I went to Ohio on business and to see my father. On Tuesday, November the 17th, I returned home. If you read the papers the 18th you may have seen a blurb where a AirTran flight was cancelled from Atlanta to Houston due to a man who refused to get off of his cell phone before takeoff. It was on Fox.

This was NOT what happened.

[EET ]I was in 1st class coming home. 11 Muslim men got on the plane in full attire. 2 sat in 1st class and the rest peppered themselves throughout the plane all the way to the back. As the plane taxied to the runway the stewardesses gave the safety spiel we are all so familiar with. At that time, one of the men got on his cell and called one of his companions in the back and proceeded to talk on the phone in Arabic very loudly and very aggressively. This took the 1st stewardess out of the picture for she repeatedly told the man that cell phones were not permitted at the time. He ignored her as if she was not there.

The 2nd man who answered the phone did the same and this took out the 2nd stewardess. In the back of the plane at this time, 2 younger Muslims, one in the back, isle, and one in front of him, window, began to show footage of a porno they had taped the night before, and were very loud about it. Now….they are only permitted to do this prior to Jihad. If a Muslim man goes into a strip club, he has to view the woman via mirror with his back to her. (don’t ask me….I don’t make the rules, but I’ve studied) The 3rd stewardess informed them that they were not to have electronic devices on at this time. To which one of the men said “shut up infidel dog!” She went to take the camcorder and he began to scream in her face in Arabic. At that exact moment, all 11 of them got up and started to walk the cabin. This is where I had had enough! I got up and started to the back where I heard a voice behind me from another Texan twice my size say “I got your back.” I grabbed the man who had been on the phone by the arm and said “you WILL go sit down or you Will be thrown from this plane!” As I “led” him around me to take his seat, the fellow Texan grabbed him by the back of his neck and his waist and headed out with him. I then grabbed the 2nd man and said, “You WILL do the same!” He protested but adrenaline was flowing now and he was going to go. As I escorted him forward the plane doors open and 3 TSA agents and 4 police officers entered. Me and my new Texan friend were told to cease and desist for they had this under control. I was happy to oblige actually. There was some commotion in the back, but within moments, all 11 were escorted off the plane. They then unloaded their luggage.

We talked about the occurrence and were in disbelief that it had happen, when suddenly, the door open again and on walked all 11!! Stone faced, eyes front and robotic (the only way I can describe it). The stewardess from the back had been in tears and when she saw this, she was having NONE of it! Being that I was up front, I heard and saw the whole ordeal. She told the TSA agent there was NO WAY she was staying on the plane with these men. The agent told her they had searched them and were going to go through their luggage with a fine tooth comb and that they were allowed to proceed to Houston. The captain and co-captain came out and told the agent “we and our crew will not fly this plane!” After a word or two, the entire crew, luggage in tow, left the plane. 5 minutes later, the cabin door opened again and a whole new crew walked on.

Again…..this is where I had had enough!!! I got up and asked “What the hell is going on!?!?” I was told to take my seat. They were sorry for the delay and I would be home shortly. I said “I’m getting off this plane”. The stewardess sternly told me that she could not allow me to get off. (now I’m mad!) I said “I am a grown man who bought this ticket, who’s time is mine with a family at home and I am going through that door, or I’m going through that door with you under my arm!! But I am going through that door!!” And I heard a voice behind me say “so am I”. Then everyone behind us started to get up and say the same. Within 2 minutes, I was walking off that plane where I was met with more agents who asked me to write a statement. I had 5 hours to kill at this point so why the hell not. Due to the amount of people who got off that flight, it was cancelled. I was supposed to be in Houston at 6pm. I got here at 12:30am.

Look up the date. Flight 297 Atlanta to Houston.

If this wasn’t a dry run, I don’t know what one is. The terrorists wanted to see how TSA would handle it, how the crew would handle it, and how the passengers would handle it.

I’m telling this to you because I want you to know….
The threat is real. I saw it with my own eyes…. [/EET]

FULL ANSWER

This account of an incident on AirTran Airways flight 297, from Atlanta to Houston, on Nov. 17 has been sent to us by many readers. It was written by Tedd Petruna, who claims that he was on the flight. AirTran Airways, which has posted a point-by-point rebuttal of Petruna’s telling of the events, says flight records indicate that he was not on the flight. The airline says Petruna arrived in Atlanta from Akron, Ohio, 26 minutes after flight 297 departed the gate.

It’s true that there was an incident on flight 297 involving a passenger (by some accounts, of Middle Eastern descent) who wouldn’t turn off a cell phone or camera as the plane was taxiing to the runway, according to several reports. This caused the pilot to take the plane back to the gate and delayed the flight by more than two hours. But Petruna’s account — in which he says he engaged in a physical altercation with what he calls "Muslim" passengers, grabbing a man by the arm and telling him, “you WILL go sit down or you Will be thrown from this plane!” — hasn’t been corroborated by other passengers, who have told varying, but much less dramatic, accounts. The evidence suggests that Petruna’s e-mail is a tall tale. One passenger says the situation was "unsettling" but people making themselves out to be heroes "live in a fantasy world and I would challenge whether they were even on the plane."

We called a home number listed for Petruna, but it was no longer in service. We have left a message for him at his workplace, NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, in Houston. We also tried to reach him through a man whose name, e-mail address and cell phone number, along with a message saying he’s a friend of Petruna, appear on many of the chain e-mails. That man’s e-mail address and cell phone are no longer working. Earlier this month, Petruna told KHOU-TV in Houston that he had fabricated some parts of his story, but he insisted, off-camera, that he was on board during the incident.

Here are the varying accounts, starting with the airline’s:

  • AirTran Airways says: "During taxi a passenger was non-compliant with Crew Members, using a cell phone and taking pictures. The flight taxied back to the gate and the passenger, who did not speak English, and his companion acting as his interpreter were asked to de-plane. They were met by customer service personnel and TSA." After speaking with TSA and AirTran officials, the men were allowed to re-board. They were part of a group of 13 men sitting throughout the plane; AirTran doesn’t say whether the men were Middle Eastern, but it says their religion isn’t known. Twelve passengers decided not to take the flight and were re-booked. The flight continued safely to Houston but was delayed by more than two hours.
  • Petruna says in his now viral e-mail message that he believes 11 men on the plane were conducting a "dry run" for a terrorist attack. He says one man called another in the back of the plane and ignored flight attendants’ request to turn off their phones; he also says two men were watching a pornographic video in the back of the plane (even though Petruna says he was in first class) and that one shouted at the flight attendant "shut up infidel dog!” Petruna has since admitted that his tale of the pornographic video isn’t true, telling KHOU-TV in Houston that he also made up his description of the men being dressed "in full [Muslim] attire." He claims that he and another passenger grabbed two of the men and told them to take their seats. Petruna also told KHOU-TV off-camera: "Due to personal and financial reasons, I can’t speak out about this."
  • WSB-TV in Atlanta conducted a lengthy on-camera interview with a first-class passenger on the flight, Brent Brown, the chairman and CEO of a security company based in Atlanta. Brown says that AirTran officials mishandled the situation by not communicating with passengers and then calling the incident "a customer service issue." He says that during taxi, he could see that men of "obvious Middle Eastern descent" were "getting up and down the aisles and [it] looked like they were interacting with each other with cellphones or some kind of electronic device." Brown says it was "unsettling" and that the flight attendants looked "distressed." The pilot took the plane back to the gate and after two hours on the ground, the flight continued to Houston, with Brown on board. He says that "it appeared the two biggest problems in the group were not allowed back on," though AirTran’s statement contradicts that. As for tales, like Petruna’s, of strong-arming of the men by other passengers, Brown says those telling such stories "obviously they live in a fantasy world and I would challenge whether they were even on the plane. But if they were, the action that they said they took, they would have had to walk right past me and then they would have been part of the problem." He says the actions by the group of men were disconcerting on their own. "The story doesn’t need to be embellished."
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed a woman who said she was sitting right behind the passenger who would not turn off an electronic device. Nancy Deveikis said that the man was looking at pictures on a camera and that he didn’t understand that the flight attendant, who later grabbed the device from the man, was asking him to turn it off. Deveikis said she thought the man spoke Spanish, and she described the situation as overblown. "Just one flight attendant snowed everyone into believing she had an irate passenger," Deveikis told the Atlanta paper.
  • One other story has been circulating in cyberspace: A chaplain, Keith A. Robinson, wasn’t on the flight during the incident but did take flight 297 from Atlanta to Houston once it departed the gate for the second time. Robinson wrote in a document he posted on the Internet that a passenger disembarking the plane told him at the gate that "approximately 12 men of Middle Eastern appearance stood up and began dancing and singing in an Arabic dialect." (Brown told WSB that he didn’t see anyone doing that.) Robinson also says this unnamed passenger told him that the men made gestures with their fingers like they were imaginary guns. In his written account, Robinson says the atmosphere on the plane to Houston, which he was allowed to take, was "tense," but he describes a flight that arrived safely without incident.

First-person accounts certainly can differ, and they even can be wildly inaccurate. And one person’s tense situation may be another’s misunderstanding. But Petruna’s story isn’t backed up by anyone, and at this point, not even himself. One lesson from this incident: Think before you hit the send button. As passenger Brent Brown says, "I would tell people that if you’re going to embellish a real story, be careful where you post it," he tells WSB-TV. "It’s going to get out there and you’re going to be embarassed that you embellished something that was already an incredible story."

– Lori Robertson

Sources

AirTran 297- Anatomy of an Urban Legend. InsideAirTran.com, accessed 14 Dec 2009.

Raw Video: Flight 297 Passenger Talks about AirTran Incident. WSBTV.com, accessed 14 Dec 2009.

Robinson, Keith A. "Air Tran Flight 297 Incident." 2009.

"AirTran e-mail stirs up Internet firestorm." KHOU-TV. 3 Dec 2009.

Stevens, Alexis. "AirTran ‘hero’ wasn’t on plane, airline says." Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 5 Dec 2009.

Stevens, Alexis and Kristi Swartz. "FAA to investigate cell phone use on Atlanta flight." Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 18 Nov 2009.