A nearly empty Northwest Airlines flight from Paris to Detroit that had been the object of a highly publicized, anonymous bomb threat landed safely at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport here Saturday afternoon, after the airline took unusually heavy security measures to ensure the flight’s safety.
Only 22 passengers--including at least three reporters--took Northwest Flight 51 after the airline had confirmed earlier in the week that it had received a specific threat against Saturday’s flight and agreed to let passengers change their reservations without penalty. More than 100 passengers out of 130 who were originally booked on the flight changed their reservations after the bomb threat was announced Thursday, Northwest said.
The flight’s departure was delayed for nearly two hours while passengers underwent a rigorous, five-step security process at Charles deGaulle Airport in Paris. Both French and American law enforcement officials, as well as Northwest security personnel, took part in the tight Paris security precautions, which included the use of bomb-sniffing dogs.
Those who went ahead with the flight, despite the worldwide publicity surrounding the terrorist threat, admitted some nervousness when the plane finally took off from Paris, but said the eight-hour, nonstop flight eventually settled into an uneventful trip.
Many added that they received unusually attentive service from the crew--including free Champagne. The in-flight movies included “Her Alibi” and “When Harry Met Sally.”
“It was luxurious--everything was free,” said Arch Naylor, a professor from the University of Michigan, who was returning from a university sabbatical in France. “Everyone had their own stewardesses.”
“It was a wonderful flight, just beautiful,” said Suzanne Chenault, who was returning to her home in the San Francisco area after vacationing in the south of France.
Chenault said that she took the flight because she considered the terrorist threat to be a personal challenge.
“I considered changing planes, but I got up this morning and decided to be courageous,” she said. “I’ve avoided a lot of difficult things in my life, and so this time I didn’t want to take the easy way out.”
The flight’s nine-member crew, under the command of Boston-based Capt. Gary Ferguson, was also given the option of getting off the plane. The crew was “fully briefed” on the situation Friday night, and chose to go ahead, Northwest spokesman Bob Gibbons said. “The captain had the final authority about whether to go or not,” Gibbons said.
In addition, Kevin Whalen, a Northwest public relations official, joined the crew on Flight 51, and then briefed reporters after the flight landed in Detroit.
Whalen said the passengers were calm throughout, and even refrained from cheering when the plane landed.
“I wouldn’t presume to say there was no anxiety, but I think that quickly faded after we had to go through such very extensive security checks,” Whalen said. “And by the time we got to Detroit, any anxiety seemed to be gone, and it was like a normal flight.”
As a security precaution in Detroit, passengers were taken off the DC-10 at the far end of one runway, away from the airport’s international terminal, and were then brought by bus to the terminal to clear customs and immigration.
The Wayne County, Mich., Sheriff’s Department provided beefed-up security in the international terminal, and additional Northwest ground personnel helped guide the arriving passengers through a crowd of waiting reporters.
The drama surrounding Flight 51 followed a tense 48 hours after Northwest’s confirmation on Thursday of a Swedish news report that it had received a specific threat against Saturday’s flight.
Northwest has been widely praised for publicly announcing the threat, in contrast to the decision by the U.S. government and Pan American World Airways last year not to reveal that there was a threat against Pan Am Flight 103, which blew up over Scotland almost exactly one year ago. That doomed flight, from Frankfurt to New York, had continuing service to Detroit, and many of the victims were from the Detroit area.
However, Northwest confirmed Saturday that it had no intention of publicly announcing the threat before the press reports came to light late in the week. Gibbons said the airline had planned to keep the threat secret until passengers were ready to board, and then inform them in the gate area of the threat and give them the opportunity to change planes.
“The agreement we had with the security agencies we were dealing with was to say nothing about the threat or about the added security around the flight,” Gibbons said. “The security people said they can do their best investigating in private.”
But Northwest decided to confirm that it had received a threat once the press reported it, Gibbons said.
Northwest officials have refused to provide many details about the threat, and only say that it came in the form of an anonymous phone call to one of the airline’s U.S. offices. Gibbons refused to say whether the bomb threat appeared to be from terrorists with ties to the Middle East.
Northwest said the airline has not received any threats against any of its other flights.