Passenger fight that triggered a hijacking alert

James Corrigan was on board as RAF jets diverted a flight to Stansted
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The Independent Online

A British man was arrested yesterday after a passenger jet was diverted to Stansted Airport under RAF escort, police confirmed last night.

The Etihad aircraft was travelling from Abu Dhabi to London Heathrow but was diverted when a passenger began making threats. Two RAF jets were scrambled to accompany the aircraft as it landed just before noon.

A 37-year-old British national was arrested on arrival. "The pilot reported a passenger causing disruption and making threats," said Essex Police.

Stansted is the capital's pre-designated airport to deal with instances of hijacking and hostage-taking. The scrambling of RAF jets allows for a plane to be shot down if it is feared that it might be used as a flying bomb. The first inkling that we, its passengers, had that this was out of the norm was when our aircraft broke through the clouds and someone shouted: "Hey, that's not Heathrow, that's Stansted."

Groans filled the cabin; these soon turned into gulps. On landing, the roar of a second jet zoomed close overhead. Then the fire engines and police cars appeared on the tarmac. We later discovered we had been "escorted" in by two fighter jets. By then, we had endured five hours of intrigue and drama and no little amount of angst.

The 8.25am from Abu Dhabi had seemed the most routine of flights. We were due to land 30 minutes before schedule and the journey was almost turbulence-free. Then came the diversion and, as we taxied into the remote part of Stansted, flanked by those emergency vehicles, the doubts began. "Wasn't it to this corner where the hijackers of a few years ago were ushered?" a fellow traveller whispered.

The first announcement came. "As you may have noticed, we are not at Heathrow," was the chief steward's opening gambit. "There is a security issue, but everything is under control. Please be seated and await further information from the captain." The next thing we heard was the captain telling the crew to open the doors. Until then the staff were deadpan, bearing expressions which did nothing to reassure. They ignored the help-button calls made by passengers worried about connections, and ignored a mother with a screaming young child.

But then they started to move and very soon every head had swivelled around to peer down the aisle. Through the back doors, policemen had appeared and swooped on their target – a white British man.

Is it racist to report that the colour of his skin spread relief through the cabins? The captain spoke on the Tannoy. "A passenger made threats against Etihad," he said. "The police removed him." The fears of terrorism lifted. At one stage, non-uniformed officials moved up the cabin to find the hand luggage of a Middle-Eastern-looking gentleman.

Apparently, the apprehended man had had a row with him and those nearby said he accused the other man of planting a bomb. A passenger said the detainee was breathing hurriedly. "I told a stewardess I thought he may having a heart attack," he said. A stewardess talked to the man; maybe this was when the threat was made. The captain said the authorities on the ground had made "a threat assessment" – cue the fighter jets. A chap with an iPhone was the first to alert us to their intervention. News agencies had picked up the story.

A lady in her 50s who used to be a stewardess rolled her eyes. "In the old days we would never have made all that palaver," she said. "We'd have said 'there, there', sat with him, and handed him to the police at Heathrow."

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