View Full Version : The Curious Case of Air Tran Flight 297

12-06-2009, 07:35 PM
Last week, I spent more than my share of hours trying to track down the truth about an incident on an AirTran flight out of Atlanta on Nov. 17.

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 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 airtran.com 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.

His colorful description of the troublemakers boarding the plane, spreading out to their seats and then being uncooperative and verbally abusive toward flight attendants and other passengers hit my mailbox Tuesday, having been forwarded by the writer's friend, a former Marine and NASA employee, who also included his name, address and phone number.

Even as people scrambled to substantiate the e-mail, Muslim and leftist Web sites began characterizing the writer and anyone who thought it might have merit as "right wing racists." They immediately initiated a campaign to discredit and ridicule the writer, who actually had the audacity to speak boldly about the escalating fear and anger on the flight, though he admitted to me yesterday he'd taken artistic license with a couple points, never imagining it would travel beyond his circle of friends. He's not a journalist, and has no wish to become the next Joe the Plumber, he said.

His account, not intended for publication, focused on Arabic-speaking men using a number of tactics to upset the aircraft, such as taking photos of passengers, getting up and down from their seats at inappropriate times and intimidating others. The e-mail has, unfortunately, overshadowed the real story.

From AirTran, we know that the captain of Flight 297 felt it necessary to turn his plane around after leaving the gate. Once there the troublemakers were removed and questioned in what turned into a two-hour delay. And then, amazingly, all but two were allowed to reboard for the trip to Houston.

What ensued, according to the disputed e-mail as well as a new and highly credible eyewitness, was a small rebellion on board, with crew and at least a dozen passengers refusing to continue the flight.

Meanwhile, another Texas eyewitness, Dr. Keith Robinson, had been scheduled on the flight, but had missed his connection. He told his version of "the obvious commotion" at the gate, and added by phone he had offered his services as an ordained chaplain during the two-hour delay, but was rebuffed by AirTran officials.