Up in the Air

Was this the punch line to a bad racist, homophobic joke or a dry run for a terrorist bombing?

Angie Smith, a Houston Press retail sales employee, got on the Continental flight with her boyfriend, all set to enjoy a fun time in Las Vegas. The August 13 trip was a reward for top salespeople with the paper.

Flight 197 from Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport was on a huge Boeing 757. Passengers began filtering aboard. As she went to sit down, Smith (who did not want her real name used for this story) noticed a Middle Eastern-looking man sitting across the aisle from her. What caused her to study him was that although he was flipping through the pages of a magazine, he wasn't looking at them. Instead, he was scanning the plane.

Another man, with a shaved head and a pink Izod shirt, who also appeared to be Middle Eastern, came up and talked to him, and then sat about four rows up.

The McDonald's bag went into the airplane restroom full and came out empty.
Al Cameron
The McDonald's bag went into the airplane restroom full and came out empty.

Four men arrived by their seats and asked the first man if there wasn't some mistake because he seemed to be in their seat.

Happens all the time when traveling by air -- a natural mix-up usually sorted out by each side pulling their tickets and comparing them to the overhead number-letter system.

But in this case, the passenger simply jumped up and moved to a seat in the next row back -- without looking at his ticket. Smith thought this was odd. She started wondering if he even had a seat.

Another clump of passengers came aboard and again a group approached the Middle Easterner, asking if he was perhaps in the wrong seat. This time he jumped up and stood in the aisle.

Smith was really starting to worry now. "We're on row 33. He's just standing there. I was starting to get a little panicked."

Eventually the man proceeded up the plane, settling down in the same row as his bald acquaintance.

Smith decided to talk with the flight attendants. She carefully kept her back to the row where the two men were sitting and explained about the seat-jumping and how the two men ended up sitting together.

"Maybe they're just gay," one attendant said.

The other one was more definite. "The FBI has a list, and there's no way a terrorist is going to get on board," she told Smith.

"We're all dead," Smith thought as she made her way back to her seat.

In her job, Smith is used to dealing with all kinds of people. She, like most Americans, is conscious of not wanting to appear politically incorrect, or of coming across as some kind of paranoid nutso.

Still, it did nothing to calm her nerves when, shortly after the plane departed and the pilot turned off the fasten-seat-belts sign, both Middle Eastern men got up and walked back to the restroom together.

One went inside while the other remained right outside. Within a few minutes, a line had formed. After about ten minutes, the people waiting got restless. "One woman said, 'What's going on?' and the friend outside shakes the door," says Smith.

"The bald guy comes out and the two go back to their seats together. The second one never went in the bathroom."

A little bit later the bald guy walks to the front of the plane, leans into one of the aisles and talks to someone, Smith says. Then another Middle Eastern-looking man walked back to the bathroom -- even though his seat was much closer to the restroom in the front of the plane.

Another Press sales employee and her husband were on the plane. Her husband, a former navy operations specialist, went to the bathroom and searched it after, he says, one of the original two men went back to the restroom within about 15 minutes of his first visit.

He opened up the compartments for the fire extinguisher, soap and tissues, checking to see if they contained anything out of the ordinary. He found nothing.

Back in Houston, Smith was telling this to a friend, when the friend said, "I just read something about all this."

That's how terrorists are supposed to be in this country putting together bombs on planes, she told Smith. They each bring a part and add it together in the restroom. That or they're doing dry runs.

As it turns out, the story she was referring to was a July 13 account written by Annie Jacobsen, a Los Angeles-based journalist who was returning home on Northwest Airlines Flight 327 from Detroit, accompanied by her husband and four-year-old son.

Jacobsen's account appeared in the online magazine WomensWallStreet.com and was reprinted around the world ("translated into Chinese," she told the Press). As she described it, a group of 14 Middle Eastern men were aboard the flight. At first they pretended not to know one another, but as the flight proceeded they began talking with each other and it became apparent they were acquaintances.

One of the men took a full McDonald's bag with him into the restroom at the front of the economy section. When he came out, the bag was almost empty, Jacobsen said. As he made his way back to his seat, the man gave a thumbs-up sign to two of the men in mid-cabin, and by the time he was back in his seat, he no longer had the bag, she said.

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