Thursday, August 04, 2005

UAL Flight 934 Diverted to Boston

I received a copy of an email circulating in the airline/flight community detailing the events that took place aboard United Airlines Flight 934 late last month causing it to be diverted to Boston. This was written by one of the airline employees who was on the flight, and details what happened and why the flight crew was concerned about these passengers.

The email (slightly edited for clarity and privacy concerns) is below:
"Many of you may have seen CNN and other news reports or read in the papers about the LAX/[London] flight that diverted to Boston to remove three suspicious passengers. Well, guess who was lucky enough to be on the flight? Thanks to those of you who have called or written with their concern. I am fine and other than a million reports I have to write, all is well.

The three Pakistani passengers, two in BC [business class] seats (8A and 14D) and one in economy, got our attention before takeoff with self upgrading, moving about the plane, changing seats several times and asking the crew about our layover, where we stayed, etc. We basically ignored them and wrote them off as bothersome. During the bar service, two of the guys kept drinking a lot, and asking for refills before we got two rows away. Now we wrote them off as obnoxious, as well as annoying. We cut down the drinks to the guy in who wanted more scotch and wine with dinner. After the meal service, the guy in 8A, who hadn't said a word, got up and went to 14D and spoke with him for 10 minutes. We didn't even know they knew each other as they had no prior contact. The F/A's [flight attendants] in economy were concerned over the behavior of the economy passenger and asked for a name check. The cockpit got back to us to let us know all had gone through secondary clearance in LAX and were all ticketed to Islamabad, Pakistan. All the guys kept going to the bathroom and now we were checking the loos every time they came out. After 8A spoke with 14D, he (14D) went to economy and went straight to the overhead in 32CDE, took out a briefcase and brought it back to his BC seat. 32E was where the economy passenger was originally seated, but he had moved to 31G on the aisle. All the F/A's were keeping an eye on these three and every time we would casually look at them, they were staring at us, watching everything we were doing. The economy guy went to the back galley and kept the duty free sellers busy by asking to see everything and having them open several items to the point where one of them wrote on a piece of paper to another F/A, "He's distracting us, see what's happening in the cabin"....

I was communicating all this information to the cockpit, as well as our concerns. I don't think they took it as seriously as we did. That was until the economy guy went to the F/A's in the back and asked them if we had been up in the air for 3 1/2 hours yet. He kept asking when 3 1/2 hours would be. At the same time, the 14D guy went up to the BC F/A's and asked if we'd been flying 3, 3 1/2 or 4 hours yet. Now most passengers ask how much longer we have to go and not if we've been flying a specific time, and we figured with all their drinking, they didn't want to know the time so they could face Mecca for their prayers.

UAL and the pilots decided we needed to divert before we got over the Atlantic (we were about 3 1/2 hours out from LAX, over the Hudson Bay) so we did a slow turn and descent to Boston for 1:50 hours. We also pulled the circuit breaker on the airshow [stopped the in-flight entertainment]. About 5 minutes before landing, the Captain made announcement we had a navigational problem that needed to be looked at before we crossed the ocean. We were all watching the guys when they were told we were landing, and none reacted abnormally. We moved a very muscular passenger to seat 1E on the aisle and an SA to seat 1A and told them we had security issues and if anyone not in uniform came up the aisle towards the cockpit, they were to try and do anything to stop them. We also moved one of the F/A's sitting up front (she is 5 foot and weighs about 100 pounds) to another jumpseat and moved another male F/A up front so there were three guys in the jumpseats by the cockpit. Having done that, we realized [that she,] the F/A we moved, was so pissed off at these guys, she could have beat the [heck] out of all of them. The one nervous Nellie F/A who walked around with the ice mallet for the last two hours of the flight, we kept in the back where if anything did happen, he could scream and hit himself with the mallet. The Captain informed me just about everyone would meet the airplane.

The landing was normal, and very quiet on the plane since it was 0300 and most passengers were asleep when we woke them. [We] pulled to the gate, but the jetway didn't come toward us for two minutes. I looked out and saw about 30 swat team guys in flak jackets and machine guns. Well, I guess everyone figured out at this point it was not a navigational problem. As I went to door 2, the guy in 8A was staring out the window at our welcoming party. The guy in 14D was on his mobile phone and he was later observed hiding the phone in the pillow when the armed guys came on board. 20 swat team guys boarded the plane, ten down each aisle with guns ready. Most of the passengers were pretty freaked by this. The police took the three guys off. We had to help them find all their carry on. Most of the passengers were very helpful in trying to ID their hand carry on as we really had no idea of what was theirs.

The FBI, TSA, Joint Terrorism Task Force Rep, Boston Police, Airport Police and Massachusetts State Troopers interviewed the Captain, the two F/A's who had the most contact with them and me for two hours. The FBI also interviewed the passengers sitting around the guys. The FBI asked the Captain when he realized the severity of the situation, and he replied, "When he saw the fear in the eyes of his crew..."

By the time we got back to the plane, UAL Ops had shown up and arranged for the passengers to go to hotels for an 1100 departure to continue to London with a new crew. Of course, we then had to wait for immigration to show up since all the non-US and greencard holders were now reentering the US and had to fill out I-94 forms as new visitors and be fingerprinted and photographed again.

When we finally got to the hotel around 0730, we were already on the news, and several hours later, we heard the passengers were interviewed, cleared and released. The FBI told me they felt they were on a test run surveillance flight, observing and watching our routine and looking for weaknesses in our security. All the authorities reassured us we did the right thing and that was backed up by the passengers who thanked us and said that they were so glad we watching out for their well being. I think as F/A's, we sense when something just isn't right, and this flight had too many small incidents that didn't add up, and thankfully, we acted on our feelings."
We should all be on guard for similar circumstances.

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