RAF fighters escort Ryanair flight to Prestwick after bomb hoax

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A note left on an aircraft sparked a major terrorist alert resulting in the scrambling of three RAF fighters, the imposition of a 25-mile air exclusion zone and the diversion of a packed holiday jet.

A Ryanair Boeing 737 flying from Paris Beauvais to Dublin was diverted to Prestwick airport in Ayrshire after cabin staff were shown a note claiming there was a bomb on board. As soon as the pilot reported the bomb warning an RAF Tornado was scrambled from Leuchars air base and two others from RAF Coningsby to escort the airlinerto the ground.

Once on the runway all 172 passengers and crew were evacuated and the plane was searched and isolated from the terminal buildings. Inbound aircraft were diverted and all departing flights were suspended.

A passenger handed a note written on a page of a magazine to crew members, which claimed a bomb was hidden beneath a seat, Strathclyde Assistant Chief Constable John Neilson said. Officers were attempting to determine if the passenger had written the note or innocently discovered it. No arrests had been made, he said, but police were questioning all passengers and crew about the incident.

Ryanair apologised for the inconvenience caused, but said that passenger safety came first. The plane was due to take off from Prestwick bound for Dublin at 10pm, but an airline spokeswoman would not say if any passengers would remain in Scotland for questioning.

Four years ago Prestwick was designated as the airport in the north of the country to deal with suspected hijackings and other terrorist threats in the wake of the attacks of 11 September 2001. The only other British airport geared up to deal with hijacked airliners is Stansted. It is understood the pair were chosen because they deal with less air traffic and are positioned away from major built-up areas.

Experts said the incident was typical of bomb threats, which rarely prove to be credible. "Terrorists don't advise the passengers that there's a bomb on board. They just blow it up," said Bob Ayres, a security analyst at the Chatham House thinktank.