Nitwittery In the Skies


The rumors of a major terror attack on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 turned out to be unfounded, with officials quoted as early as Saturday afternoon describing the alert as a “goose chase.”  It wasn’t even a “wild goose chase.”  It’s sad when the goose doesn’t give one hundred percent.

It’s good that the intelligence and law enforcement communities took the threat seriously.  The original source for the intelligence was sound, as described in a Fox News report:

Word that Al Qaeda had ordered the mission reached U.S. officials midweek. A CIA informant who has proved reliable in the past approached intelligence officials overseas to say that three men of Arab descent — at least two of whom could be U.S. citizens — had been ordered by newly minted Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks Sunday by doing harm on U.S. soil.

According to the intelligence, they were to detonate a car bomb in one of the cities. Should that mission prove impossible, the attackers have been told to simply cause as much destruction as they can.

This could be an entirely accurate report, but the three stooges contacted by Zawahiri might have decided not to carry out the order.  Or maybe they’re still trying.  It was widely thought the already damaged al-Qaeda would suffer enormous damage to its credibility by laying low through the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but perhaps an attack sometime during the next couple of weeks would be useful enough for propaganda purposes.  This is no time to let our guard down.

Meanwhile, there were a few odd incidents aboard airliners over the weekend.  CNN reports on two incidents of fighter jets being scrambled to escort passenger planes:

In the first incident, the Transportation Security Administration was notified of passengers allegedly behaving oddly on American Airlines Flight 34 from Los Angeles International Airport to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, said TSA spokesman Greg Soule.

Out of an abundance of caution, authorities sent two F-16 jets to shadow the flight until it landed safely at JFK at approximately 4:10 p.m. ET, Soule said, adding law enforcement will interview passengers. J. Peter Donald of the the FBI in New York said the incident involved three passengers.

Tim Smith, a spokesman for American, told CNN that a passenger alerted the crew to a perceived security concern. The captain investigated and elected not to declare a security threat, and no one on board requested military or law enforcement assistance, Smith said.

The second incident involved Frontier Airlines Flight 623 from Denver International Airport to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.

Crew members noticed two men acting suspiciously. One spent about 20 minutes in a bathroom in the back of the plane, while the other waited in a forward galley before using the restroom, also for 20 minutes, said Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuk.

“The crew did not feel threatened,” Kowalchuk said, but “maintained surveillance” of the men.

TSA spokeswoman Kristin Lee said the agency was notified at 3:15 p.m. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) ordered an unspecified number of F-16s to shadow the flight, Lee said.

Authorities took three passengers, including the two acting suspiciously, into custody when the aircraft landed in Detroit, Kowalchuk said. There have been no arrests, said Sandra Berchtold of the FBI.

The really odd incident involved two men who identified themselves as federal air marshals aboard United Flight 3681 from St. Louis to Washington, D.C.  The St. Louis Fox affiliate reports the account of Ron Meyer from Young America’s Foundation, who was a passenger on the flight.  (Interestingly enough, Oliver North was reportedly on the same plane.)

Meyer said both men were in the bathroom on board the plane for some time and when they were confronted by airport personnel, they identified themselves as federal air marshals. But because they didn’t have any paperwork confirming that, they were removed from the plane in handcuffs.

The TSA released the following statement regarding the incident:

“United #3681 from St. Louis International (STL) to Washington Dulles (IAD) returned to the gate at the direction of the airline, and all passengers were rescreened at the request of the pilot-in-charge. All passengers were screened with negative findings,  and the plane departed for IAD, landing at approximately 10:15 p.m. EDT.”

Officials at Lambert Airport were not able to confirm the incident saying it is a Homeland Security issue.

According to Meyer, “a pilot later said the men were indeed federal marshals.”  Well, that’s a relief, I guess.  How do two air marshals both forget their identification papers when boarding an airplane?  Isn’t that stuff kind of important?  How does anyone get onto an aircraft without proper ID?

I’m a very experienced flyer, so let me offer a few tips for the traveling public:

1. Bring your identification, especially if you’re a federal air marshal. 

2. Domestic flights only last a few hours.  Modern technology has given us an array of pocket-sized electronic entertainment devices.  Ancient technology gave us something called a “book,” which is a fine way to spend a few idle hours.  Take advantages of these resources, instead of behaving like a jackass who belongs on the wrong end of a taser.

3. Airplanes don’t have many bathrooms.  No one needs to spend all that much time in the bathroom on a three or four-hour flight.  Do your business and clear the facilities so others can use them.  Your fellow passengers and undocumented air marshals will appreciate your courtesy!

Update: The Detroit Free Press has a new report that says the passengers aboard Frontier 623 to Detroit were sick, which accounts for their odd restroom usage.  The FBI called them “victims of circumstance, and victims of the day,” which is maybe not the best way that could have been phrased. 

This part of the report will disappoint the Frontier Airlines marketing department:

FBI Detroit spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold said reports about sexual encounters taking place in the rest room are false, describing them as “stories spinning out of control.” 

Here’s a thought: maybe sick people should notify the flight attendants of their condition (or the attendants should inquire, if illness is obvious) and the attendants could then quietly inform any concerned passengers, if unusual restroom usage is required.