Man sparks scare on US flight
Denver - A passenger on a United Airlines flight from Washington to Denver sparked a security alert on Wednesday after he was apparently caught smoking in the toilet and made a remark that was perceived as a threat.
US officials said a Qatari man was in custody but the incident did not appear to be serious. President Barack Obama was, however, briefed on the disturbance and a White House official said "actions were taken to ensure the safety of the travelling public".
Officials could not confirm media reports saying the passenger was a mid-level diplomat in his 20s. Attempts to reach the Qatari Embassy in Washington were not immediately successful.
United Airlines Flight 663, which originated from Washington's Reagan National Airport, landed safely in Denver after two F-16 fighter jets intercepted the Boeing 757 aircraft, according to the North American Aerospace Defence Command responsible for safeguarding US airspace.
"It looks like the individual in question was perhaps smoking in the lavatory and might have made an unfortunate remark" when confronted by airline personnel, a US official said.
No explosives found
US officials have been on heightened alert and have ramped up security substantially since Christmas Day last year after a Nigerian man tried but failed to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with a bomb hidden in his underwear.
The first reports of Wednesday's incident heightened security at other airports, such as Los Angeles Airport, where police said they added patrols.
ABC News, citing federal law enforcement officials, first reported that US air marshals subdued a Qatari man who authorities say tried to "light his shoes on fire" on the flight, sparking fears of another attack.
CNN said no explosives were found on board and identified the man as a mid-level Qatari diplomat. When asked why he was in the toilet so long, he "said something about lighting his shoe on fire", the network reported.
US officials could not confirm that report. The plane was surrounded by security vehicles when it arrived at Denver International Airport.
"Law enforcement and TSA (Transportation Security Administration) have responded to the scene and the passenger is currently in custody," the TSA said in a statement.
Security beefed up
There were 157 passengers aboard the plane and six crew members, according to United Air.
US officials have tracked the December plane incident back to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This has led them to step up efforts to combat the militant group in Yemen where the Nigerian man told investigators he trained and obtained the bomb.
Additionally, TSA has beefed up security since that incident, requiring some passengers to undergo full-body scans at airports.
Just months after hijackers crashed planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11 2001, Richard Reid, a Briton and self-admitted member of al-Qaeda, was subdued on a trans-Atlantic flight diverted to Boston after attempting to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes.
Reid pleaded guilty to eight counts related to terrorism and was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.