A scare that grounded an American Airlines flight for several hours at San Francisco International Airport this morning appears to have stemmed from a threatening phone call made to a hotel in Alameda.
The call was received by a front desk clerk at the Hampton Inn and Suites, hotel general manager Dhruv Patel said.
The caller was a man with an unidentified accent who said he was going to hijack American Airlines Flight No. 24, according to Patel.
“He did specifically mention a flight number, which happened to be an active flight,” Patel said.
Alameda police Lt. Bill Scott said police received a report at 9:09 a.m. from a business on the east side of town reporting that a clerk had just gotten a call from a stranger who had made a threat against an airliner.
Police investigated the report and determined the threat was specific enough that it merited contacting federal authorities, which they did, Scott said.
Patel said the threatening call had come from outside the hotel, but the caller didn’t say where he was or why he was calling the Hampton Inn.
The phone call was “jumbled” and filled with profanity, and the clerk said the man was hard to understand, according to Patel. He said the phone call lasted less than a minute.
“It all happened very, very quickly,” he said.
Flight 24 was initially scheduled to depart at 7:40 a.m. today for John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York but was delayed for unrelated reasons until 9:15 a.m., passengers said.
Police got the call just before the flight was scheduled to take off and notified the FBI, prompting authorities to hold the plane on the tarmac for several hours.
Two passengers were detained for questioning, but police said this afternoon that no one remained in custody.
The flight was carrying 163 passengers and 11 crewmembers, American Airlines spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said.
The passengers were removed from the plane and were taken to a terminal for screening, San Francisco police Sgt. Michael Rodriguez said.
Local conducted a sweep of the aircraft.
“They’re going over every inch of that plane,” FBI spokesman Joe Schadler said. He said it is not yet clear whether the threat was credible.
“Somebody called and advised that there was a threat to this plane,” Schadler said. “We have to take that seriously.”
Schadler said two people, a man and a woman, were led off the plane separately and questioned, but that no one had been arrested.
Passenger Andrew Latham, 27, of England, was sitting two rows ahead of the pair who were removed.
He said San Francisco police boarded the plane and spoke briefly with the man, asking him his name and where his bags were. They then led the man off the plane in handcuffs, Latham said.
Latham and his wife, 25-year-old Emma Bullen, were returning home from their honeymoon, a trip that included stops in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.
After the threat was received this morning, the TSA requested that the plane be moved to a remote location as a precaution.
“We were miles from everywhere,” Latham said.
He said the mood on the plane was tense but calm throughout the wait. One person at a time was allowed to use the restroom, and no one was permitted to access the overhead bins, he said.
Hours later, passengers were removed from the plane six at a time, Latham said. San Francisco police checked each passenger with a wand and inspected the carry-on luggage.
Everyone was then taken back to the terminal on a bus, he said.
Shortly before 2 p.m., Palo Alto resident Anne Anderson was waiting at the American Airlines ticket counter to be reunited with her 20-year-old son Mike, who had been on Flight 24 to go to football camp at Yale University.
She was shopping in Marin County this morning when she began to receive calls and texts from her son saying he was stuck for an “unknown reason.”
One text said the crew was not allowing anyone to stand up. San Francisco police have released little information on the threat or this morning’s events but assured members of the public at a news conference this afternoon that it is still safe to travel.
Passengers on Flight 24 are being rebooked on other flights.