Jetliner grounded after threat

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 20, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — An American Airlines flight bound for New York City was halted just before takeoff Thursday after someone called police and threatened to hijack the jetliner, authorities said. A witness said two people were taken off the plane in handcuffs.

The threat rattled nerves in San Francisco and beyond and marked the latest in a series of airline scares in the past year.

American Airlines Flight 24 was grounded at San Francisco International airport at about 7:30 a.m. Thursday. Passengers were removed from the plane and taken by buses to a terminal where they were sent through security again.

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Passenger Michael Kidd told The Associated Press that he saw uniformed police officers handcuffing a young man and a young woman sitting in the back row.

A law enforcement official told The Associated Press that the threat call originated from a hotel in nearby Alameda to the city’s police department Thursday, and officials there quickly notified federal authorities. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to release the information.

Another person close to the investigation says it was a hijack threat. Details about the call were not immediately clear.

The FBI confirmed at least two people were being questioned. Their identities were not immediately known.

‘‘There was no fear in the cabin at all,’’ Kidd said in telephone interview. ‘‘It was pretty calm. Even with the frustration of having to sit there, there were no raised voices.’’

The plane was taken to an isolated part of the tarmac and buses were pulled up near the jet to shuttle the passengers back to the terminal.

‘‘All passengers are safe, and out of an abundance of caution, TSA requested the plane be moved to a remote location,’’ TSA spokeswoman Suzanne Trevino said in a statement.

It was the latest in a line of airplane scares in the past year, including the attempted Christmas bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner by a Nigerian. In April, a Qatari diplomat who was on his way to an official visit with an imprisoned al-Qaida sleeper touched off a bomb scare in Colorado by slipping into an airline bathroom for a smoke.

One of the four hijacked flights on Sept. 11, 2001, was bound for San Francisco. United Air Lines Flight 93 left Newark International Airport for San Francisco and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

Passenger Randy Cohen, 50, of New York said he lived across street from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

Cohen said the atmosphere on the plane was generally calm even though passengers got little explanation about why the plane had been diverted. But he said rumors about a hijacking or bomb threat began floating around among passengers connected to the Internet. ‘‘It was like, man, this can’t happen again,’’ Cohen said.

At the same time, via its Twitter feed, American Airlines reassured a passenger sending out tweets from aboard the aircraft.

‘‘Hang in there,’’ the airline said, ‘‘the authorities are taking care of things.’’