A Republic Airways Embraer ERJ-170 was flying on behalf of United Airlines. The aircraft was registered as N645RW and was performing flight YX-3531/UA-3531 from Newark, NJ to Minneapolis, MN (USA) with 64 passengers and 4 crew. They were descending towards Minneapolis with the crew being unaware of federal air marshals (FAM) on board when one of two FAMs on board approached a flight attendant and demanded to see the passenger manifest.
The FAM subsequently, instead of showing his badge, showed his gun to the flight attendant, who considered the scenario as suspicious and informed the flight deck about the passenger and the gun on board. The crew declared emergency stating that even if the individual was a FAM this was completely against standard operating procedures. They had secured the cockpit, the door was locked.
The crew and ATC discussed where to park the aircraft for emergency services to have access to the aircraft and decided to stop the aircraft at a de-icing pad near runway 30L. The aircraft landed safely on runway 30L and taxied to the de-ice pad, where the engines were shut down. The crew advised that the individual appeared to be pretty agitated claiming the flight attendant should never ever have informed the flight deck. In the meantime, dispatch transmitted an ACARS message to the crew confirming there were two FAMs on board of the flight. Crew and ATC subsequently decided to have the aircraft taxied to the gate, the crew started engine #1 and taxied to the gate, where passengers disembarked.
Police then handcuffed the two FAMs and took them into custody but released them a short time later.
The FBI reported it appeared there was a miscommunication between a federal air marshal and a flight attendant. The flight attendant mistook the FAM for an armed civilian. The FAM had been assigned to be on the flight.
The airline confirmed they are aware of the incident and are working with the authorities.
The TSA stated: “A Federal Air Marshal on official business onboard a flight was mistaken for a passenger by a flight attendant. Protocols for notification of law enforcement presence aboard an aircraft are in place to avoid incidents like this. TSA is working with the airline to determine the specific circumstances in this case.”
The airport stated: “We know we have a call from the flight crew indicating a passenger flashed a gun in flight. We contact the FBI and make preparations to board the flight in a remote area when it lands. We then take the individuals to the police operations centre for questioning by the investigating agency, the FBI, whose job it is to get to the bottom of who the individuals are and discern the facts behind the situation that led to the call for police help. Our first priority is always to ensure everyone’s safety, and that involves first creating a separation between the public and suspicious objects or individuals and then determining whether or not the individual or object presents an actual threat. That is precisely what happened Monday night.”
© Nigel Howarth