Qatari Diplomat Sparks Scare On U.S. Flight
An Arab diplomat who said he was grabbing a surreptitious smoke in the bathroom of a Denver-bound airliner sparked a security scare Wednesday night that sent jet fighters scrambling.
Two F-16 fighter jets escorted the United Airlines Boeing 757 into Denver International Airport, while federal marshals sat next to the diplomat for the remainder of the flight.
Once on the ground, authorities said the man did not have any explosives, and the whole thing appeared to be a misunderstanding.
This incident comes just three months after a Christmas Day attempt to blow up a plane headed for Detroit. Since then, authorities and flight crews have been on alert for anything suspicious.
When United Flight 663 landed, it was escorted to an isolated area and surrounded by emergency vehicles. Passengers said that was the first indication that anything was amiss.
Tim Burney of Centennial, Colo., said he was sitting in the first-class seat directly in front of the Qatari diplomat who was taken into custody.
"No, [I] didn't know a thing. I was working on my computer — not paying attention to it. When we landed you could tell there was some stuff going on," he said.
He said authorities never gave any information to passengers about what was happening. Most of what passengers learned about the incident came from family and friends who called on mobile phones and relayed news accounts.
There was never any commotion, Burney said, but a couple of air marshals aboard the flight came and sat with the man.
"Then, once we landed, the police came on after 10 or 15 minutes and then handcuffed him and took him off," Burney said.
What Burney and the other passengers have since learned is that the man sneaked into the bathroom to smoke. News reports have quoted unidentified security officials who said the diplomat apparently joked about lighting his shoes on fire. The reference to the 2001 shoe-bomber incident was taken very seriously.
Authorities didn't name the man taken into custody, but news reports quoted an unidentified Arab envoy as saying he was Mohammed Al-Madadi, a diplomat with the Qatari Embassy in Washington.
The Transportation Security Administration said in a statement that the man was being interviewed by law enforcement. Passengers on the plane were taken to a fire station at the airport and interviewed by FBI agents.
Debbie Adams of Longmont, Colo., was at the airport to pick up her husband. She complained that her husband should have been released much sooner because he didn't witness any of the events.
"So, my husband was sleeping the whole time. There's no information he can give them. You know, people have been inconvenienced for four, maybe five hours, and I bet you they're really tired," she said.
Passenger Debra Christopher was greeted with a hug from her husband five hours after the plane landed. They kept in touch by cell phone until her battery ran out. Still, she said she was never worried.
"People applauded the pilot and the flight attendants, and everybody was calm, and I felt like we were in good hands," Christopher said.
An airport spokesman said the incident didn't affect other operations. No flights were delayed or canceled.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.