Nearly 200 passengers experienced a scare over the Pacific Friday after a man became disruptive about four hours into the flight.
American Airlines Flight 31, an Airbus A321 from Los Angeles to Honolulu, landed safely at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport at 11:35 a.m., escorted by Hawaii Air National Guard scrambled fighter planes.
According to the FBI, a disturbance aboard the flight alarmed flight crew to the point where an off-duty law enforcement officer and others subdued a passenger.
Special agents of the FBI Honolulu Field Office and its law enforcement partners, including the Hawaii Department of Public Safety Sheriff Division, were waiting on the tarmac, and took a passenger into custody.
The FBI identified him as Anil Tuvanc Uskanli, a Turkish national born in 1991.
“We’re currently preparing a complaint for interference with a flight crew,” said Paul Delacourt, FBI special agent in charge of the Honolulu Field Office. “In an abundance of caution, the subject was taken for medical evaluation. I expect he will be turned over into the custody of the FDC (Federal Detention Center).”
The plane was then cleared of passengers and checked by an explosive operations detection unit.
Delacourt stressed there were no other known threats to American Airlines or to any other aircraft.
As of Sunday, May 21, the FBI confirmed Uskanli remained in federal custody at the FDC, and was being held for the violation of Interference of a Flight Crew and/or Flight Attendants, a felony offense.
Passengers describe what happened
American Airlines says the aircraft was carrying 181 passengers and six crew members. The passengers were interviewed by the FBI.
Passengers tell us it wasn’t until the flight was preparing to land that the pilot informed passengers of a security breach.
Witnesses say a man seated near the back of the plane was acting peculiar about an hour into the flight. They say he tried to reach the front of the plane, but was subdued by a flight attendant and a few passengers.
Some say he tried to open the hatch door in the main cabin, while others say he tried to reach the cockpit. Officials confirm he never made it.
“I can just stand here and commend the crew on Flight 31. From what I could see, they reacted quickly. I think their training really set in today,” said passenger Allison Forburger. “What I had seen was, and I’m thinking she’s the lead crew member, stopping the gentleman before him actually moving forward into first class and up to the cockpit door.”
“Most of us were asleep at the time. They dimmed the lights on the plane from take-off, but what most of us woke up to was someone banging on the … door,” said passenger Nina Alomar, “saying, ‘Let me out of the plane.’ … By the time most of us looked, they put a towel over his head, so most of us didn’t see what he looked like until they escorted him off when we landed.”
The man also had a laptop that attendants confiscated and placed at the back of the plane. Witnesses say American Airlines treated the laptop like a suspicious device, padding it with pillows and blankets.
“I think it was kind of dramatic for those of us who were watching what was going on,” said passenger Curtis Sherwood. “Most of the scuffle took place in the front part of the plane, and then the individual was escorted toward the back of the plane, and there were some things that were taking place at the back of the plane with respect to his laptop. … The individual was walking back and forth down the aisle with the laptop acting in a very peculiar fashion.”
It was around then that pilots dropped the plane 10,000 feet.
“I guess they were trying to lower the pressure in the plane. That’s what they told us, that there were pressure problems,” said Alomar. “It slowed down. The plane completely slowed. It was really concerning, because you’re in a plane and you don’t want to feel it slow down.”
John Foley told KHON2 his sister, Emily, was on board.
“She was about four seats in front of the guy,” Foley said. “She said she was pretty scared that she was on the plane with someone who was a possible threat, but she’s just glad they were able to get him off quick.”
Man detained by authorities prior to boarding
The Los Angeles Airport Police Division confirms the man was previously detained early Friday morning at LAX.
In a statement, police said:
This morning at approximately 2:45 a.m., officers with the Los Angeles International Airport Police Division responded to a radio call of a passenger going through a door from the Terminal 5 concourse that led out onto the airfield ramp. The man, 25 year old Anil Uskanli, was immediately spotted by a contractor and detained. Uskanli was a ticketed passenger on an American Airlines flight, and had gone through TSA screening. Airport Police investigated and determined Uskanli had been drinking but did not meet the criteria for drunk in public. A Police K-9 searched and cleared the area. Uskanli was arrested for misdemeanor trespassing, cited, given a pending court date and released from custody.
Editor’s Note: The original statement provided by police incorrectly spelled Uskanli’s name and has been corrected by the editor.
Ripple effect at the airport
The Hawaii Department of Transportation said there was a 30-minute backlog caused by the halting of all ground movements on the airfield as the flight came in.
Hawaiian Airlines says it briefly held interisland flights departing from neighbor islands due to the incident, but operations have since resumed. Some passengers traveling on neighbor island flights experienced delays.
The Department of Homeland Security released the following statement:
“The Secretary has been briefed on the incident today with American Airlines Flight 31. The aircraft is currently on the ground, and the individual who disrupted the flight has been detained. DHS is prepared to assist other federal and local law enforcement agencies as they investigate the incident. At this time, there are no other reports of disruptions to flights. We continue to monitor all flights out of an abundance of caution and will provide updates as necessary.”
While authorities and witnesses on the plane said the man was never able to reach the cockpit thanks to the quick actions of crew and passengers, KHON2 wanted to know how secure an airplane’s cockpit is if someone is trying to get inside.
Aviation expert Peter Forman says training and the structure of the airplanes have changed over the years, especially since 9/11, so the cockpit and the pilots in it are very secure.
Forman says training for the crew is more sophisticated nowadays. On some flights, the crew can be armed, and the doors on the plane and cockpit are built much stronger than before.
“There is so much training now that it’s unlikely that someone can get up to the cockpit door and try to enter it without being noticed,” he said. “Passengers will intervene. The crew, the flight attendants did a great job keeping him away from that door.”
Forman says the F-22 raptors that escorted the flight to Hawaii were there to protect buildings if the cockpit was ever breached.