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US Airliner Forced to Land After Suspicious 'Incident' - 2002-09-11

As people around the United States observed the anniversary of last year's terrorist attacks, an incident occurred aboard an airliner outbound from Houston that resulted in the plane returning to the airport. Federal agents interviewed two suspects, but later released them.

The incident took place about 20 minutes after the American Airlines plane had left Houston at just after noon, Houston time. Flight attendants noticed one man moving about the cabin at a time when he should have been seated. They also spotted what they thought was a weapon in the pocket of another man sitting farther back in the plane.

After discussing the situation with on-board sky marshals, the flight crew decided to return to the Houston airport. Two U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets accompanied the jetliner back to the airport where the 50 passengers disembarked.

Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI, took the two suspects into custody, but after a brief interview determined that no criminal acts had taken place. An FBI spokesman says the object in one suspect's pocket turned out to be a comb and that there is no indication that the two men even know each other. One of the men is a U.S. citizen and the other is British.

Although the incident proved to be a false alarm, Houston Intercontinental Airport Director Ernie De Soto said the flight crew acted properly.

"I think it is important to note, although it is unfortunate that we have had this incident, thank God nothing came from it, and more importantly, perhaps, is that exactly what is supposed to happen, happened," he explained. "That is to say, there were federal air marshals on board, there were observant and conscientious flight attendants working this flight."

Mr. De Soto says the actions taken by the crew and air marshals were appropriate and that the only effect of the incident was that passengers were delayed in arriving at their final destinations.

Another incident of a plane being diverted to ground occurred Wednesday at Fort Smith, Arkansas, where authorities detained four men for questioning. Flight attendants had noticed suspicious behavior on the part of the men and the pilots landed the plane as a precautionary measure.