Was AirTran Flight #297 a Terrorist Dry Run?

Like Climategate, there is another story the national mainstream media has either missed or largely ignored, and that is the story of what really happened on November 17th on AirTran's Flight 297 from Atlanta to Houston. 

Much confusion remains about exactly what transpired that afternoon on a plane preparing for takeoff at Hartsfield International Airport. By every account, the undisputed facts are that a large group of men disturbed procedures and upset the flight crew to the point of causing a delay. At least one passenger allegedly refused to comply with repeated requests from flight attendants to discontinue his use of a cell phone (in compliance with FAA regulations) while the plane was taxiing on the runway, causing the pilot to turn the plane around. The entire group was asked to deplane, and TSA officials questioned them before allowing them back on the flight. The original flight crew was replaced. Twelve passengers not involved with the group of belligerent Middle Eastern men deplaned and requested another flight.   

According to AirTran's whitewashed version of the story reported by the
Atlanta Journal Constitution

A flight attendant had apparently asked a male passenger twice to put away a cellphone or camera, but the man had not done so. The flight attendant then took the device from the man.  At the gate, the passenger -- who didn't speak English -- and a companion were asked to leave the plane, which they did without incident.  When it was determined the problem was caused by a language barrier, AirTran and Transportation Security Administration officials allowed the man, and 12 others traveling with him, to reboard, and the flight left for Houston a little more than two hours later. Later, officials said the entire incident was the result of a miscommunication.

That sounds harmless enough, doesn't it? To borrow from the late Strother Martin as he famously said in the movie Cool Hand Luke, "What we have here is [simply] a failure to communicate" -- right? Well...not so fast, my friend.

The confusion begins with a widely circulated (and now partially discredited) e-mail written by a man named Tedd Petruna, who has since admitted that his e-mail was not intended for public consumption and that some details were embellished -- particularly those of his alleged heroic actions reminiscent to some degree of those on Flight 93 to San Francisco on September 11, 2001. According to Mr. Petruna's account, eleven Muslim men acted in concert to disrupt the flight. They did far more than refuse two requests to stop using a cell phone; in fact, they were using cell phones to call each other on the plane, distracting two stewardesses, and exhibiting other bizarre, threatening, and defiant behavior that terrified the passengers and flight crew. 

Mr. Petruna's full account of the incident rightfully warranted more than a little skepticism. The website snopes.com, most useful for fact-checking urban legends, was somewhat inconclusive about the veracity of the disputed information in the case, warranting further investigation. Articles at World Net Daily and a few other online sources are beginning to piece together more information about what really happened.

AirTran took the odd step of refuting Mr. Petruna's account point-by-point, even going so far as to contest his presence on the plane when the incident happened. According to AirTran, Mr. Petruna had not arrived in Atlanta at the time of the incident and was never on the passenger manifest for the flight in question. AirTran followed that claim with a list of other alleged errors in Mr. Petruna's account, which would seem unnecessary if he were not really on the plane. Some issues were rather silly (his account mentioned eleven "terrorists" versus AirTran's report of thirteen men) or explained as innocuous (the swap of the flight crew was a routine procedure).  

Interestingly, and apparently in conflict with AirTran's version, Laura Armstrong of the Marietta Daily Journal reported that she spoke with Mr. Petruna, and he claims to still have his boarding pass, which should not be easy to fake. Because he claims he deplaned before the flight actually took off and took a later flight, Mr. Petruna would not be on the final passenger manifest regardless, would he? 

But several much bigger problems exist with AirTran's attempt to whitewash the story. For one, there were actually other passengers on the plane, and their versions of the story come much closer to Mr. Petruna's than to AirTran's. These accounts confirm that the truth lies in between AirTran's airbrushed version and Petruna's urban legend. A reporter with WSB TV interviewed a highly credible passenger named Brent Brown who said,

[I]t was extremely tense. I've never experienced anything like that after flying for company reasons for more than twenty years now. You can imagine just about everything you can think of has happened on a flight, and some pretty hair-raising experiences. This was like nothing I've ever experienced before. After being in law enforcement and twenty years in the security industry, this was tension at its highest.   

Another eyewitness interviewed by Houston television station KHOU was Chaplain Keith Robinson, who missed the incident on the tarmac but took the rescheduled flight. He boarded in spite of warnings from deplaning passengers, one of whom refused to continue the trip because "these Middle Eastern men were taking pictures, wouldn't sit down, and besides that a couple of them were making gestures with their hands as though they were shooting people." Robinson witnessed "flight attendants ... weeping openly" and provided secondhand corroboration of many of the details in Brown's account -- hardly the simple "miscommunication" AirTran claims. 

In another article written by Michael Carl for World Net Daily, private investigator and terrorism writer for Family Security Matters Mark Taylor was quoted as alleging that his investigation suggests Muslim terrorists were indeed carrying out a dry run.

There are three independent versions of the story that corroborate the possibility that 11 or 12 Middle Eastern men appeared to be testing AirTran's security.  The evidence tends to show that someone was doing what is referred to as a dry run, or what one television commentator calls a 'shark bump,' just to see if we're paying attention.

It is understandable to a degree that AirTran would wish to minimize the public relations damage to their business by downplaying the seriousness of what really happened on Flight 297. But the lesson of United flight 93 is that an alert and aroused citizenry functions as a defense against airborne terror attacks. We deserve a full and honest account of what happened on AirTran 297.

John Leonard can be reached at johnleonard@mindspring.com.  His first book, titled Hybrid Theory: Reconciling Creationism and Evolution Theory, is awaiting publication. 
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