Security incidents on 7 U.S. flights

Tough new rules, anxiety are factors

stick of dynamite found on one plane

August 26, 2006|By Elizabeth Mehren | Elizabeth Mehren,Los Angeles Times

BOSTON -- Amid new anxiety about air travel and tough new regulations about what passengers can bring on planes, at least seven U.S. flights were involved in security incidents yesterday. In one case, a stick of dynamite was found to have been aboard a flight.

The rash of events, safety consultants and others said, reflected both heightened emotions and appropriately tightened security following an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners that was thwarted this month by British authorities.

"I think it's a combination of both," said Douglas Laird, a Reno, Nev.-based consultant to the airline industry and former longtime security director for Northwest Airlines. "I think there is a heightened awareness of what happened in London, and that causes some people to overreact."

In what may have been yesterday's most serious incident, authorities said a college student's checked luggage on a Continental Airlines flight from Argentina was found to contain a stick of dynamite after it landed in Houston en route to Newark, N.J.

A bomb-sniffing dog at the international arrivals area at Bush Intercontinental Airport detected an explosive substance in a suitcase belonging to a man who told Houston authorities that he works in mining and often handles explosives.

The man, Howard McFarland Fish, 21, was charged with carrying an explosive aboard an aircraft and was in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Not terrorist acts

Federal authorities have determined that his actions were not acts of terrorism, agency spokeswoman Luisa Deason said in a statement.

The flight continued to Newark without Fish or his baggage, and was swept again for explosives upon landing as a precaution, officials said.

Three U.S. aircraft - one each from American Airlines, U.S. Airways and Continental Airlines - made emergency landings yesterday.

A Transportation Security Administration spokesperson said American Airlines Flight 55, bound for Chicago from Manchester, England, was diverted to Bangor, Maine, because of "a reported threat to the aircraft while it was en route."

FBI investigating

FBI spokeswoman Gail Marcinkiewicz in Boston said that she was unable to specify the nature of the alleged threat but confirmed that the FBI was taking part in an investigation in Bangor.

"We aren't going to give out any of the details," she said. "Until all of it is taken care of, we can't comment."

Marcinkiewicz said the plane was diverted to Bangor because it is the northernmost U.S. major airport. She said the plane, carrying 188 passengers, landed at about 12:45 p.m. yesterday.

A TSA spokesman said that "given the current threat level, the agency, in conjunction with other federal authorities, took prudent action to ensure the security of passengers and crew." The spokesman said TSA canines searched the plane.

Forced landing

Also yesterday, a Charlotte, N.C.-bound U.S. Airways jet that had taken off from Phoenix made a forced landing in Oklahoma City after a federal air marshal reportedly subdued an unruly passenger.

Authorities declined to give details pending an investigation.

After the crew of Continental Airlines Flight 2258 discovered a missing panel in the lavatory, the plane bound for Bakersfield, Calif., from Corpus Christi, Texas, was diverted to El Paso, Texas, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

The plane, which carried 50 passengers, was held for about four hours before officials determined that there was no danger.

Other incidents

In three other incidents, a utility knife was found aboard a parked U.S. Airways plane in Connecticut, the takeoff of a United Flight in Chicago was delayed after an on-board bomb threat, and, in Ireland, an Aer Lingus plane from the United States was evacuated after it landed.

Authorities in Hartford, Conn., boarded U.S. Airways Flight 554 from Philadelphia yesterday morning after a passenger found a utility knife on a vacant seat. No arrests were made, and no threats issued, state police said.

State police and the FBI were investigating whether the knife had been left on the plane by a worker or whether a passenger had brought it aboard.

At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, a flight attendant aboard United Flight 686 overheard a minor say he had a bomb and alerted the pilot, who taxied to a secure part of the airport. The minor's mother and the minor were removed from the plane and it was searched, an FBI official said.

After bomb-sniffing dogs found no explosives, the flight, which was on a layover between Portland, Ore., and New York's LaGuardia, was allowed to continue.

And in Ireland, an Aer Lingus plane from New York was evacuated at Shannon Airport after police received a call early yesterday claiming that "some sort of device" was on board.

Police found nothing suspicious, Aer Lingus officials said yesterday, and the plane returned to service.

Aviation security has increased substantially since British intelligence services announced Aug. 10 that they had broken up a plan to destroy trans-Atlantic airliners with liquid explosives. Two dozen people were arrested, four of whom have been released.

The disclosure caused chaos at airports in Great Britain, where more than 2,380 flights were canceled in the week after the alleged plot was revealed.

U.S. transportation officials responded by introducing strict new rules pertaining to carry-on objects.

Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said yesterday that the ramped-up precautions were "long overdue" and that there was nothing excessive about the new mood in the skies.

"The U.S. aviation system depends on layered security - different levels of security," she said. "The more that we can put in place to ensure the safety inside the aircraft cabin, the safer our aviation system will be."

Elizabeth Mehren writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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