Paris-to-Boston flight diverted by watch-list alert
After questions, man deemed not suspect
WASHINGTON -- A Boston-bound Air France flight from Paris yesterday was diverted to Maine after US Homeland Security officials discovered that a passenger had the same name as a man on a terrorist watch list.
After detaining the man and three relatives for several hours at Bangor International Airport, Homeland Security officials determined that he was an innocent person who shared the same name with a suspected terrorist. They let the family go.
''After a thorough interview and review of the facts on the ground by officials, the individual in question was deemed admissible into the United States," said Leah Yoon, a spokeswoman for US Customs and Border Protection. ''He and his traveling companions have been allowed to continue on to their original destination."
Authorities released no further details. But Sabiha Bishara, a passenger on the flight, said later that the family had been on an earlier flight from Cairo to Paris with her, and that they said they were planning to go to Orlando.
The man was traveling with his wife and two girls, a 10-year-old and a newborn, she said. The wife, who sat next to Bishara on the plane, wore a veil and spoke in both English and Arabic, she said.
''They were nice people and I hope everything will be all right for them," said Bishara, who said she is visiting Boston because her son is graduating from Bentley College.
The incident drew instant criticism from politicians, including Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, who said the diversion revealed that the watch list system for US-bound international flights was flawed. There have been several such diversions.
Airlines are given a list of the names of passengers who should not be allowed to fly based on suspicions of ties to terrorism. Ticket agents are not supposed to issue boarding passes to anyone who appears on the ''no-fly" list.
About 15 minutes after a flight takes off, the airline sends a manifest to the Homeland Security Department. The list is then screened against other terrorist watch lists.
Schumer said yesterday that passenger names of US-bound flights should be checked before a flight takes off.
''The incredible danger and tremendous inconvenience caused by not clearing names with the terrorist watch list before a flight takes off is completely unacceptable," he said.
Homeland Security officials first learned of a possible match between the passenger and the no-fly list about 10:30 a.m. yesterday, said Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Ann Davis. The plane's scheduled departure from Paris was 7:15 a.m. EDT.
Officials decided to divert the plane to Bangor, the first major US airport on the path of westbound trans-Atlantic flights.
Representative Bennie G. Thompson, Democrat of Mississipi, the ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security, said, ''Making the flying public more secure means using a little common sense. We must check passengers who are traveling to the United States against terrorist watch lists before they get on a plane, not when the plane is already in the air."
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said the occasional diversion is better than waiting for US officials to check names before letting a flight take off, which he said could cause delays of one to two hours.
''That's the choice from a security point of view," he said. ''It would be a huge inconvenience from the passengers' perspective and the airlines' perspective."
About 30 minutes before landing, the passengers were told they were stopping in Bangor ''for security reasons." Six agents entered the plane and took the family away. Bishara said they appeared surprised when the agents approached.
The remaining 177 passengers and crew on board the Airbus A-330 then proceeded to Boston, landing shortly before 5 p.m. -- two hours late.
Reaction among passengers was mixed. Bob Griffin, 39, of Chelsea, Mass., who was returning from a trip to Cairo yesterday, said, ''I don't mind being delayed for two hours if we're safer for it. How can you complain about that?"
Bill Silveira, 49, of Lakeville, Mass., who was returning from a business trip to Paris, called the experience ''frustrating."
''I mean, what happened to security before you take off?" he asked.
Yoon said the government is considering whether to screen passenger names before letting US-bound flights take off from foreign countries.
P.J. Crowley, a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress, said that airlines have resisted such a change, fearing delays. He said the ultimate solution will be technological advances so names can be screened faster.
Yesterday's diversion followed an incident on April 8, when a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Mexico City was forced to turn back after US authorities denied it the right to fly over the country.
A passenger manifest sent to the US by Mexico revealed that two Saudi brothers on board had trained at the same Arizona flight school as one of the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to later reports. The brothers, who said they were going to visit their retired father in Mexico, were not arrested after an investigation.
That incident has prompted the government to consider requiring airlines to submit the names of passengers on flights that are scheduled to fly over American airspace as well.
Established after the Sept. 11 attacks, the no-fly list has been the subject of controversy. Among the high-profile people who have been stopped because of the list are Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts; Cal Thomas, the conservative columnist; and Yusuf Islam, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens.
Viser reported from Boston.