‘Hijacking Dry Run’ on AirTran Airways Flight 297?

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

The Truth:

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 [2009] 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 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.