Even so, the first seven hours of yesterday's Alitalia flight 618 were uneventful. I was too sleepy to appreciate the movie, too hungry to mind the airline food, and not pleased with the International Herald-Tribune crossword. I settled into a light sleep about halfway through, with occasional wakeups for snacks and drinks.
I woke up with a start, for instance, when the captain announced we’d begun our descent into Boston. He said the weather was partly cloudy. The elderly Greek woman seated next to me noted the temperature – 12 C – would be a big change from what we’d enjoyed in Athens.
As we past through the cloud layer, I peered through my window seat to look for landmarks. I didn’t see any, but was pleased that things looked I lot greener than when I left in April. We got closer to the ground and I fretted that I couldn’t spot the Boston skyline –- or even the ocean. What approach was this? As we touched down, the passengers applauded, but I was growing alarmed: this didn't look like Logan. I saw a fleet of gray military cargo planes outside a hangar. There were no passenger planes from my view, just wet tarmac and an overcast sky. Where were we?
The Greek lady remarked she’d made this flight twenty times, and had never seen this part of Logan. The woman behind me suggested, “It might be that new runway they’re talking about.” The cockpit told us nothing. Some passengers had unfastened their belts and began to retrieve carry-on bags. I thought about turning on my GPS receiver. The Greek lady checked her watch and announced that, wherever we were, we landed a half-hour early.
After about a minute of growing unease, the captain announced (in Italian first, then English) that we were in Bangor, Maine, and under what he termed “police control.” As I was translating this to the Greek woman next to me, the plane was boarded. Four men in black uniforms, along with a plainclothed man with a large ID badge, walked past us to an aisle seat about eight rows behind me. They surrounded a man who calmly stood up, and then they all quietly walked out. The whole thing took less than a minute. I got a good look at the deposed passenger (but was afraid to reach for my camera): he was tall, maybe 6’, with light brown skin, a curly beard, no mustache, and short black hair.
The captain told us we were still under police control, and the passenger who was removed was wanted by US authorities. We would stay in Bangor until they identified and removed the man's luggage, a process they estimated would take 30-45 minutes.
We were allowed to circulate during the luggage search, so I got up and interviewed the man nearest to the deposed passenger (note: I am not a journalist). Here's how the interview transpired:
Me: Hey, wow, was he, like, sitting right there?
Nearby passenger: Yeah! They just came right in and took him! They didn’t even ask his name.
Me: Is that his jacket?
Him: He just got up and left. Didn’t take any carry-on with him, either.
Me: Was he doing anything weird during the flight?
Him: No, nothing I could see.
Me: Um... So, what did you think of the movie?
Another passenger remarked, “He didn’t seem surprised at all. It’s like he knew they’d be coming for him.” I wouldn’t ascribe so much to that brief encounter, but then again, we didn’t have a lot to work with.
That’s when Mom called. She and Dad were supposed to pick me up at Logan. She was really worried about how the Arrivals board switched from “On Time” to “Delayed” so late in the flight. The group of reporters massing at Logan alarmed her, too, until Channel 5’s Kelly Tuthill explained to her that we had a suspected terrorist aboard, and had landed safely in Maine.
“How did all these reporters know so fast?” Mom wondered. Tuthill revealed: The network told them.
When I explained that the luggage search, refueling, and flying home would take at least another hour, Mom asked what we were still doing on this plane. It’s a good question: if this man is wanted by the US, and dangerous enough to prompt a landing at the first available international airport on US soil, why not evacuate the plane during the luggage search? Wasn’t it possible we were sitting on a ticking bomb?
As if on cue, the cockpit requested we take our seats but keep our belts unfastened (“the better to evacuate us,” I suspected.) Flight attendants positioned themselves by the exits, and for the first time since we were boarded, I got nervous. But soon after, the luggage was found and we were told we’d be underway again soon.
As we maneuvered onto the runway, I saw some TV trucks and photographers gathered by a fence, to film us. Of course, by now, our cameras were snapping away at them (a fellow passenger joked, “Reporters observed strange flashes of light from within the cabin...”).
Back in the air, I publicly speculated Alitalia had spare snacks on hand, for just such an occasion. But if they do, we didn't see them -- we were served only water. I took the opportunity to ask our flight attendant when they learned of the diversion. “Was it just a ruse when the cockpit said we were descending into Boston?”
“No,” he replied. We learned we were landing in Bangor right after that announcement.”
When we finally landed at Logan, I worried that we’d be subject to lengthy inspections or questioning at customs. At this point I really just wanted to go home. Other passengers were trying to catch connections. But the lines moved pretty quickly, and the only questions I was asked came from the Boston news stations.
The reporters were angling for the frustration angle – why not check the passenger lists before the flight leaves? While that sounds well and good (though is apparently technically difficult) I’m more confused about other aspects of the way this emergency was handled: The location to which we were diverted, and the apparent lack of concern after the suspect was removed.
The no-fly list is reserved for those with known or suspected links to terrorism, or other “threats to aviation.” This man was considered enough of a risk to scramble escort jets from Canada and the US, and enough of a risk to divert us to the nearest US airport available to a 767. On other occasions, however, the US has refused international planes carrying no-flyers, forcing diversions to Canada. And we were over Canada for a good long while.
I’ll try to guess what Homeland Security was thinking: since Flight 618 had made it across the Atlantic without incident, the risk of the suspect trying something between Canada and Bangor was apparently not worth bringing the plane that early, and maybe the US wanted custody of the suspect. But the risk of him flying into Boston was too great. OK, I can buy that. So the plane was diverted to Bangor, and the suspect removed. But, his carry-on and jacket are left behind for at least fifteen minutes (I didn’t see if when or if they were taken off the plane). The luggage compartment was checked for over thirty minutes to find and remove his items, while 200 or so passengers are kept on board.
Why is this man considered such a risk to Boston, but his suitcases and personal items are considered no risk to the passengers?
I don’t know. Maybe the authorities have their secret reasons, but I’m not so sure. This is the second such diversion in a week, and there’s been no announcement about improving the existing system, despite complaints from a Massachusetts congressman and hundreds of inconvenienced passengers.
What I did learn from this experience: