SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (CBS 2/AP) — Who made the call?
Investigators are seeking the identity of a caller whose hijacking threat left a jetliner grounded and passengers wondering why two of their own were escorted off the aircraft by authorities.
Kennedy Airport-bound American Airlines Flight 24 was stopped just before takeoff at San Francisco International Airport Thursday.
The FBI eventually determined the hijack threat was no credible – but not before all 163 passengers were removed from the plane.
One couple was led off in handcuffs. They were detained briefly and then released.
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.
But a fellow passenger suggested the couple may have been targeted because of their appearance. Michael Anderson, 20, saw the couple at the American Airlines ticket counter after all the passengers were let off the detained plane and observed them carrying passports from Pakistan.
“It definitely seems like it was racial profiling, based on what they look like physically and the fact they are Pakistani. It seems like this was a false accusation,” said Anderson, a Yale University sophomore who was heading back to school.
Passengers on the flight who had Internet access searched the Web for details about the incident. They were allowed to go to the restroom one at a time, with flight attendants admonishing anyone who tried to get to their overhead luggage, said Michael Kidd, 48, of Folsom, who missed his connecting flight to Barcelona because of the delay.
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 two passengers were taken off the plane separately, but we cannot discuss the specifics why,” said FBI spokesman Joseph Schadler.
The couple declined to discuss the possibility that they may have been targeted because of their appearance but said they were treated well and only questioned briefly before they were allowed to go to the ticket counter like all the other passengers.
Kidd said he and his wife did not believe the couple had been racially profiled based on appearances alone. The man wore a Los Angeles Lakers jersey and the woman was wearing a beret, and they looked like typical Californians, he said.
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.”
The remaining passengers were interviewed and sent on their way.
The flight was ultimately canceled.
(TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)