Two U.S. fighter jets escorted a Panama-bound Sunwing Airlines flight back to Toronto after a man allegedly made threats, forcing the plane to turn around Friday morning.
The two F-16s shadowed the Sunwing plane all the way to Toronto, said Captain Jennifer Stadnyk, of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). She said it was standard protocol for military planes to escort planes if there is uncertainty aboard the flight.
“It was a precautionary measure,” Captain Stadnyk said. “Once the aircraft was safely on the ground in Toronto, the fighters departed and returned to their home base in Ohio.”
Ali Shahi, a 25-year-old Canadian citizen, was arrested and faces several charges including uttering threats, endangering the safety of an aircraft, and mischief charges, Peel Regional Police Constable Lilly Fitzpatrick said. He is expected in court for a bail hearing in Brampton Saturday.
Flight 772 departed Pearson at 7 a.m. but turned around about 45 minutes later over West Virginia when “an agitated customer made a direct threat against the aircraft,” Janine Chapman, spokesperson for Sunwing, said in an e-mailed statement.
She said she didn’t know what the man’s direct quotes were but could confirm that he tore up a duty free magazine.
Peel police’s tactical unit entered the plane upon landing at about 9 a.m. and arrested Mr. Shahi without incident, Constable Fitzpatrick said.
Cellphone video shot by a passenger and acquired by CTV showed SWAT team officers storming the plane with their guns drawn, yelling, “Heads down, hands up.”
“At this point I don’t have any details of what the nature of threat was but it caused the pilot enough concern that he thought it in the best interest for the safety of everyone on board that the plane return to Toronto,” Constable Fitzpatrick said.
All 181 passengers, two infants and six crew members were safe, said, spokesperson for Sunwing, and there was no damage to the aircraft.
Sunwing provided complimentary meals to passengers as they waited for the airline and Peel Police to search the plane. Nothing dangerous was found and the aircraft was deemed safe to return to service.
All but three of the customers boarded the flight again when it departed for Panama at about 3:15 p.m.
“Interestingly, two customers who missed the original flight this morning were able to board the delayed flight this afternoon,” Ms. Chapman said.
The incident was the latest in a month of aviation trouble and deadly crashes around the world.
A similar event occurred in June when an Air Canada flight to Brazil was ordered back to Toronto several hours after departure when a man was able to pass through security unchecked, triggering an alarm that grounded flights at Pearson airport. Police interviewed the man and found no criminality in the incident.
More seriously, an Air Algérie plane carrying 116 people crashed in Mali Thursday, leaving no survivors, one day after 47 people died when a TransAsia Airways turboprop plane crash-landed on an island near Taiwan. A teenager died this week while attempting to fly around the world with his father, who is now missing after their plane crashed near American Samoa. And last week, a Malaysia Airlines plane carrying about 300 people was shot down over Eastern Ukraine.