‘Hijacking Dry Run’ on AirTran Airways Flight 297?
A speculative story shared by a purported passenger has been circulating on social media as new since 2009.
Summary of eRumor:
This eRumor is said to be from a man who was aboard an airplane about to depart from Atlanta, Georgia when there was a disturbance which he describes as prompted by a group of 11 “Muslim men got on the plane in full attire” and “peppered themselves throughout the plane.”
They purportedly created a disturbance that included loud cell phone conversations, the showing of a porn video on a portable player, calling a flight attendant “an infidel dog.” The writer claims that he and another passenger helped physically escort the eleven men toward the exit of the airplane where they were met by several TSA agents and police officers to take the men away.
Later, however, the men were allowed to reboard the airplane, at which point several of the passengers and the entire crew got off in protest and said they would not fly when the men on the plane. The writer said all of the men were talking in Arabic, speculating that this may have been “a dry run” for a terrorist attack.
Can anyone shed any light on an incident aboard Air Tran flight 297 Atlanta – Houston recently?
— Tony Gittins (@GoGetTony) July 3, 2012
This story has taken a lot of twists and turns.
This rumor turned out to be originally from an email that was sent to friends by a man named Ted Petruna from Houston, Texas. One of the forwarded emails that we received included his email address, and so we contacted him to ask about the story.
Mr. Petruna told us that he sent this to a few friends and that he never intended for it to become so widely distributed. As we looked more thoroughly into the story, some of the details related by Petruna were in conflict with what we were told by AirTran and local media accounts.
Then, in an interview with a Houston television station, Petruna changed some of the story, saying — for example — that he actually did not see the man who he previously had claimed was watching pornography, and that he did not in fact stand behind his description of the attire of the group of foreigners.
Then, on December 4, 2009, AirTran issued a statement saying that they had checked the flight manifest, and that “the individual that allegedly created a first-hand account of events on-board Air Tran Airways flight 297, a Theodore Petruna, was never actually on-board the flight.”
According to the report, the flight that Petruna was on from Ohio landed in Atlanta 26 minutes after AirTran 297 left the gate. This caused him to miss his connection, meaning his entire “eyewitness account” is nothing but a fabricated hoax.
AirTran spokesman Christopher White confirmed that an incident did take place on November 17, 2009 aboard AirTran flight 297, which was scheduled to fly from Atlanta to Houston, Texas. White told us that the incident took place far from the way it was described, however; apparently, it was the result of a passenger who was unable to understand and comply with instructions from flight attendants because he did not speak English.
The passenger was part of a group of foreign travelers and did have a translator — but the translator was sitting several rows behind him, according to published reports. White also told us that in no way was the passenger suspected of any terrorist plot or activities and that no TSA agents or police officers boarded the plane when it returned to the terminal.
In December 2009, a Georgia-based newspaper columnist obtained an additional eyewitness account regarding the internet rumors about Petruna’s story:
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 … The e-mail writer told me today AirTran is lying [in their response to the email’s circulation] 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.
The column referenced a response attributed to the airline (archived), “AirTran 297- Anatomy of an Urban Legend”:
After conducting additional research into this situation, we have verified, according to flight manifests (legally binding documents) that the individual that allegedly created a first-hand account of events on-board AirTran Airways flight 297, a Theodore Petruna, was never actually on-board the flight.
According to all available records, Mr. Petruna’s trip originated from Akron-Canton, Ohio (CAK) on AirTran flight 205. This flight arrived at the gate in Atlanta at 5:06 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Flight 297, the flight which Mr. Petruna allegedly wrote a first-hand account of, originally pushed back from its gate in Atlanta at 4:40 p.m. EST, a full 26 minutes before flight 205 arrived at the gate in Atlanta making this flight connection impossible.
While Mr. Petruna was originally scheduled to begin his journey on AirTran flight 202 from CAK and connect to flight 297 in Atlanta he did not make that original flight.
The chain of events that evidently led to the incident was as follows:
A group of twelve non-English speaking passengers and their translator boarded the AirTran flight to Houston in Atlanta. When the plane began to taxi to the runway one of the non-English speakers was spotted by a flight attendant using his cellular phone; his translator was many rows back, so they were unable to tell the caller of the Federal Aviation Administration rules that require all electronic devices to be turned off during takeoff and landing.
Not understanding what the flight attendant was saying, the caller continued his conversation. This resulted in the flight attendant alerting the captain of the jetliner, who decided to return the plane to the terminal.
Once safely at the terminal, the caller and the translator were asked to exit the aircraft and the rest of the non-English speaking group followed. When the mix-up was all sorted out, all members of the group were allowed to return to the aircraft which was still at the terminal. At that time, a small group of other passengers who were waiting on the plane decided that they didn’t want to fly on it after all and they disembarked.
The Federal Aviation Administration looked into the incident, but no one was detained and no charges were filed.
AirTran ceased operations in December 2014.
A real example of the eRumor as it has appeared on the Internet:
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.
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. They 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