SAN FRANCISCO – A hijack threat halted an American Airlines flight just before takeoff Thursday, leaving the New York-bound jet sitting on the tarmac for several hours while it was searched and passengers were removed for extra scrutiny.
The FBI later determined that the telephoned threat wasn’t credible, but in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and a series of airline scares in the past year, the incident still rattled nerves as it played out live on national TV.
Although passengers described the scene aboard the Boeing 767 headed to John F. Kennedy International Airport as calm, witnesses said a man and a woman sitting in the back row were taken off in handcuffs. But they were quickly released and allowed to rebook their flights.
The couple confirmed to an Associated Press reporter that they were the ones who had been removed from the plane but declined to identify themselves. They said authorities explained they were picked at random for questioning.
American Airlines Flight 24, with 163 passengers and a crew of 11, was already running 2 1/2 hours late when it pulled away from the gate at 10 a.m. Minutes later, it was being dispatched to a remote stretch of tarmac at San Francisco International Airport where it sat for two hours.
Police eventually entered through the back door and escorted the two passengers into a police car.
Others on board were taken off the plane six at a time and greeted by San Francisco Police Department officers who used security wands to screen them and their carry-on luggage. They were then taken by buses to a terminal for further security checks and to rebook their flights.
The threat report originated from a clerk at a business in Alameda, a city across San Francisco Bay from the airport, said Lt. Bill Scott. The clerk called police shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday and said the business had received an anonymous phone call “making a threat specifically about Flight 24,” Scott said.
FBI spokesman Joseph Schadler said officials acted quickly and the Transportation Security Administration ordered the plane away from the main terminal.
“We take any threat against an airline or potential terrorist activity very seriously,” he said. “You treat them like it’s real until proven otherwise because the cost of failure is so high.”