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A First-Hand Account of How United Handled a Bomb Scare

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Bomb threats should never be taken lightly, and yesterday morning United flight 4941 operated by CommutAir from Albany (ALB) to Newark (EWR) was the latest to experience a scare. The flight was evacuated when a man uttered the word “bomb” while on board the flight before it had departed the gate. Luckily, everyone on board was safe, no bomb was found and the flight took off about two hours after its scheduled departure (without the passenger in question). We here at TPG got a first-hand account of the incident because my mom was on the flight.

My mom texted me to check my email around 10:30am because there was “LOTS of action at 5 this morning!” Knowing that’s not like her and that she was traveling that day, I immediately checked and saw a link to Albany’s local paper the Times Union, reading “Threat of bomb evacuates plane at Albany.” I immediately read it and called her to get the full details.

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My mom’s flight information.

According to her, she arrived at ALB under normal conditions for the flight’s 6:00am departure — one of the first of the day out of the small airport. She proceeded to her gate where a man sat near her in the gate area. The man started fidgeting and talking to himself. As someone who’s a nervous flyer, she didn’t think much of it but kept an eye on what was going on. The man then continued fidgeting and talking even louder to himself. He had a red book that said Holy Bible and would take out little pieces of paper, write small notes and stick them back in the Bible. He kept fidgeting and repeating statements like “I don’t know about this flight; I don’t know if I should take this flight.”

Somewhat nervous at this point, my mom approached the gate agent to explain the situation — and she proceeded to brush it off. My mom went back to the seating area and took a seat farther away from the man. A woman she sat next to, who stated she had been sitting there for a while, had also noticed the man’s unusual behavior. After a few more minutes of his constant nervous movements and talking, this woman approached the gate agent. Again, the gate agent seemed dismissive.

Finally, my mom spoke to a gate supervisor and the gate agent she originally approached and was told that a sheriff would need to be called, which didn’t happen. Her concerns were, again, dismissed. So she went back to wait in the seating area.

After trying to report the incident several times and being brushed off by authorities, my mom figured everything was fine. Perhaps this was normal — and, after all, if something was truly wrong, United or airport security would have taken appropriate action, right? After all, my mom was following the ever-common phrase, “If you see something, say something,” and she said all she could.

A Dash 8. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
A Dash 8. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

United flight 4941 was operated by a small regional aircraft — a Dash 8 (twin-turboprop) — so there weren’t many people. My mom was one of the first to board, and the man was the last to board and he took a seat next to a female passenger. The passenger he sat next to noted the continued nervous fidgeting and talking to himself — before uttering “bomb.”

The woman who was sitting next to him remained calm, stood up and approached a flight attendant. The flight attendant informed the pilot who then called the authorities. The plane had not yet departed from the gate, so it remained in place until the police arrived at the gate. As soon as the man was taken off the plane, all remaining passengers deplaned.

The flight departed about two after its scheduled time.
The flight departed about two hours after its scheduled time.

Police dogs were called in to search the plane and all luggage on board, and the FBI anti-terrorism task force was also called in. No bomb was found — but a very scary situation, nonetheless. My mom was shaken from the situation, and understandably so. About two hours after the incident and after the aircraft had been cleared, the flight took off for Newark. Since the incident, United has released a statement, reading:

This morning, on CommutAir flight 4941 from Albany to Newark, a passenger reported a security concern, and our crew contacted authorities. Out of an abundance of caution, all customers deplaned while authorities reviewed the aircraft. Customers reboarded and the flight has landed in Newark.

According to reports, the 31-year-old man was arrested for disorderly conduct, interviewed by the terror task force team and released. There’s still no word on if charges will be filed, and the sheriff said it’s still unclear what context the word was used in.

Thankfully, the flight landed safely, but this incident brings up some good questions. How should United have handled the situation? Could — or should —the gate agents or supervisor have done anything when they were originally alerted of the situation? The flight attendant and pilot acted swiftly and did as trained to do by contacting authorities, so that’s comforting, but it raises the question of if this could have been avoided.

Do you think the situation was handled correctly? What do you think could have been done differently?

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