Aug. 23: F-16 fighter jets scrambled to escort a Mumbai-bound plane back to Amsterdam today, triggering a nerve-wracking wait on the tarmac that culminated in the arrest of 12 passengers who aroused the crew’s “suspicion”.
The plane, which originally took off from Minneapolis in the US and stopped over at Amsterdam, was diverted over German airspace.
Dutch police spokesman Rob Staenacker said he could not disclose the nationalities of the people taken from the Northwest Airlines DC-10 after it was diverted over German airspace, or the nature of the suspicions against them.
“I can tell you 12 people have been arrested,” he said. It was not immediately clear if they had been charged.
Security has been increased at airports worldwide in the last two weeks after British police said they had foiled a plot to blow up planes in the mid-Atlantic using liquid explosives disguised as drinks.
An American passenger, who identified herself only as Alpa, said she saw about a dozen people taken off the aircraft in handcuffs who appeared to be of South Asian origin.
A US government official said crew members and air marshals observed the passengers attempting to use cell phones and passing the handsets among themselves while the airliner was taking off.
“It was behaviour that average passengers wouldn’t do,” the official said.
The plane had left Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport at 10.25 am local time after the scheduled stopover.
“A little over an hour later, at 11.39 am, the plane returned to Schiphol, escorted by two Dutch F-16 fighter planes, at the request of the pilot who reported ‘unruly behaviour’ by some passengers,” Annemie Van Winckel, a local journalist, told The Telegraph.
“Given the current state of affairs in Europe, flying is a matter of great anxiety and over-reaction to fellow passengers’ behaviour cannot be ruled out,” Winckel added.
The Dutch defence ministry said Flight NW 42 returned to Schiphol after the crew grew suspicious of the behaviour of several passengers.
“A number of them behaved, in the opinion of the crew, in a suspicious manner,” said the ministry. “As a result, the captain asked to return to Schiphol.”
After the captain radioed Amsterdam seeking permission to return with a military escort, routine security measures were swiftly put into place and the jet fighters took off from a northern military airfield.
The plane was carrying 149 passengers when it turned around shortly after crossing the German border. A Northwest DC-10 has a normal seating capacity of 273.
The Dutch National Terrorism Coordinator’s Office was informed, but said there was no reason to raise the national threat level, “It is the same as it was before — light threat,” a spokesperson said.
An amateur audio recording of communications between Schiphol air traffic controllers, the commercial plane’s pilot and pilots of the F-16 escort planes was circulated among Dutch media.
Asked by an air traffic controller whether he wanted fire engines to be ready on the runway when the plane returned, the Northwest pilot replied: “No, Sir.”
The air traffic controller later told an F-16 pilot that “the reason why he’s returning to Amsterdam is unknown”.