April 8, 2010 -- Everyone knows you can't say "bomb" on a plane, but what if you're just kidding? In these days of heightened air security, a misunderstanding, offhand remark or even a joke may lead to a grounded plane, criminal charges and thousands dollars spent on security measures.
Wednesday's emergency landing of the flight from Washington, D.C., to Denver after a Qatari diplomat Wednesday night allegedly made a sarcastic remark about setting fire to his shoes while smoking the plane's bathroom was just the latest in a series of recent bad passenger decisions that led to security scares and emergency landings.
Nobody was harmed and no explosives were found on the United Airlines flight, but the military scrambled two F-16 fighter jets as a security measure to escort the flight in for landing, costing taxpayers an estimated $7,500 per hour in fuel and maintenance expenses for each plane.
Since a foiled Christmas Day plot to blow up a Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam, passengers, airlines and the government have been on heightened alert.
While in the past, people saying stupid things on planes or acting irrationally might have received a warning, today they're likely to get tackled by an air marshal or other passengers.
In the first three months of this year, there have been a whopping 35 flight diversions in the United States due to security concerns, more than double the 17 incidents during the same period last year, according to Transportation Security Administration data.
In early January an Orlando-bound Northwest Airlines flight was diverted to Nashville, Tenn., after a suspicious item was discovered aboard the plane. The item: a Christmas ornament.
And later that month a flight attendant on a US Airways Express flight out of New York thought an observant Jew who was wrapping religious items to his wrist and head was playing with ominous cables or wires.
In January, a man on a flight from Oregon to Hawaii became upset after he was told he could not store his bag under his seat. He then allegedly handed a comment card to a flight attendan that read: "I hope we don't crash and burn or worse yet, landing in the ocean, living through it, only to be eaten by sharks or worse yet, end up on someplace like Gilligan's island..." The plane turned around and headed back to Portland's airport under the escort of military F-15s.
Other incidents might not have been quite as innocent, but they also weren't acts of terrorism.
On a recent Air Tran flight from Atlanta to San Francisco a man had five airline-sized bottles of wine and then needed to use the bathroom. But just for a bit of extra comfort, he decided to take off his shoes and socks and place them outside the door. Not the brightest idea. But then, he opened the door, took off his shirt and was shaving. Flight attendants tried to get him to sit down, he allegedly refused and that led to a flight diversion and his arrest.
On Jan. 23, a 33-year-old New York man allegedly tried to open a plane door in the middle of the flight from Washington, D.C., to Las Vegas. The man said he thought he was on the wrong airplane and that it was on the ground when he tried to open the door. Investigators said he'd had several drinks.
Air Marshals on Every Plane?
Isaac Yeffet, the former head of security for the Israeli airline El Al, said our "enemies have learned that we are in panic, we are under pressure, we are under stress. Any joke can cause us to jump to the sky. We are afraid of tragedy."
Yeffet said Wednesday's Denver incident shows the importance of air marshals and why, in his mind, they should be stationed on every international and domestic flight.
"It took them seconds to knock him down and then do the investigation about what he had or did not have. The fact that they knocked him down shows how important it is to have air marshals on every flight," said Yeffet, who now runs his own firm, Yeffet Security Consultants. "If we had this type of air marshal on the four aircraft of Sept. 11, believe me, we would have saved thousands of innocent people."
Switching from air marshals on random flights to all flights, he said, "would show the world: don't try to attack us anymore"
"We know in this country that we rely on technologies. We know that this is unacceptable," Yeffet said. "Technology can never replace well-trained and qualified human beings."
While Yeffet praised the TSA marshals for doing a great job, he questioned the need for fighter jets.
"What I can't understand is why we needed two F-16s to escort the aircraft when we had air marshals," he said. "They knocked him down. Everything was over. They found out it was nothing serious; it was just an idiot diplomat from Qatar."
"This shows a weakness and panic," Yeffet added. "We have air marshals, let them do the job quietly and without panic."