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A first-hand account of a supposed "terrorist dry run" on an American airplane is making its way around Facebook, with this July 29 post garnering over 90,000 shares.
The account, written by a man named Tedd Petruna, describes how 11 passengers "in full Muslim attire" on AirTran Flight 297 from Atlanta to Houston made such a ruckus that the flight was canceled.
Petruna claims that one of the men called a stewardess an "infidel dog," that two of the men were showing "footage of a porno video they had taped the night before," and that all 11 men screamed at the flight crew in Arabic. Eventually, Petruna says, Transportation Security Administration agents searched the men’s bags, and that when they allowed them back on, so many passengers left the plane that the flight was canceled.
"The terrorists wanted to see how the TSA would handle" them, Petruna wrote. Only Fox News reported that the flight was canceled, Petruna says, and even they covered up the real "threat."
Spoiler alert: Petruna’s report is a hoax, and not a new one either. The plane in question flew Nov. 17, 2009. In this fact-check, we’ll explain this conspiracy theory’s origin, then debunk it again for good measure.
Remember chain emails?
We reached out to Dwayne Chassion, the man who posted Petruna’s report on Facebook verbatim as it appeared in 2009, but didn’t hear back. After we messaged him, Chassion deleted the post from his Facebook account.
The day after Flight 297, Fox News published a brief article from the Associated Press noting that Flight 297 departed for Houston two and a half hours late. According to the AP, "a crew member asked a passenger to turn off his phone," the passenger didn’t, and then the pilot returned the plane to the gate and "asked (the passenger) to get off the plane."
Apparently, the man didn’t speak English -- he and his group of 11 others were travelling with a translator -- and was looking at pictures on either his phone or a camera. The full group of 13 men got off the plane when the pilot returned to the gate, but, after some discussion with airport officials, the men were allowed back on the plane.
The two and a half hour delay pushed the original flight crew past mandated limits on hours worked. So AirTran subbed in a new flight crew and the plane left for Houston without incident -- minus 12 original passengers who, apparently uncomfortable, opted for later flights.
That’s marginally similar to Petruna’s account, but the flight was not canceled and there certainly were no Arabic curses or homemade pornographic film.
Within a few days of Flight 297, Petruna’s email began circulating. Eventually, it reached the websites of conservative pundits Glenn Beck and Debbie Schlussel.
When AirTran got wind of Petruna’s email, they issued a point-by-point refutation. Long story short, Petruna wasn’t even on the plane because his connecting flight was late. Petruna later admitted that he embellished the details, and that he intended the account only for "a few friends."
According to a chaplain who arrived late but got on the plane after it returned to the gate, a passenger said that "12 men of Middle Eastern appearance stood up and began dancing and singing in an Arabic dialect." But no other passenger corroborated that, either.
Either way, Flight 297 got off the ground, and although it may have been a tense flight, Petruna’s narrative was bogus then, and it’s bogus now.
Petruna’s 2009 account about a "terrorist dry run" leading to a canceled flight is going viral on Facebook. According to Petruna, 11 Muslim men were so uncooperative with their flight attendants that Flight 297 from Atlanta to Houston was canceled.
But the airline, other passengers from the flight, and the Associated Press all disagreed. Petruna, although originally scheduled for the flight, never boarded. In actuality, a man who may or may not have been of Muslim descent didn’t speak English well enough to understand the flight attendant’s instructions to turn off his phone.
Petruna’s account is outdated and riddled with inaccuracies. This claim rates Pants on Fire.
Dwayne Chassion on Facebook, status, July 29, 2014
Fox News, "Passenger on Cell Phone Delays AirTran Flight," Nov. 18, 2009
Atlanta 11 Alive, "Making Cell Phone Call Forces AirTran Flight Back to Terminal," Nov. 18, 2009
Debbie Schlussel, "Another Muslim Hijacking Dry Run?: If True, Tedd Petruna’s My New Hero; UPDATE: CONFIRMED," Dec. 3, 2009
Dallas News, "AirTran responds to passegner’s terrorism email," Dec. 4, 2009
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "AirTran ‘hero’ wasn’t on plane, airline says," Dec. 5, 2009
Talking Points memo, "Flight 297 Passenger, Tedd Petruna Is ‘Living In A Fantasy World,’" Dec. 8, 2009
FactCheck.org, "What Happened on Flight 297," Dec. 14, 2009
Chaplain Dr. Keith A. Robinson, "Air Tran [sic] Flight 297 Incident," 2009
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