A spokesman for the US Customs and Border Protection said that a second passenger on Northwest Airlines flight 253 was detained at the Detroit airport on Christmas, confirming accounts of at least four passengers on the flight. The episode has security experts questioning whether the handling of the passengers on the ground created an additional risk at the airport.
In the days following the attempted terrorist attack, lawyers Lori and Kurt Haskell of Detroit and Daniel Huisinga of Tennessee said that while they were being held in the baggage claim area of the airport, a K9 dog alerted police to the bag of a fellow passenger.
“One of the dogs found something in the carry-on bags of an Indian man.” Mr. Haskell said. “He was immediately taken into an interrogation room and came out in handcuffs and taken away.”
The Customs Department spokesman Ronald Smith initially said that no one other than Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was detained at the airport that day. On Thursday he said a man had been detained from another flight that arrived at the same time. In an email Thursday evening, Mr. Smith, told me he had been misinformed and confirmed much of the Haskells’ account.
“I now know that a passenger from flight 253 did have a canine alert to his carry-on baggage in the baggage area of the CBP facility. He was placed in handcuffs and escorted to an interview room where he was interviewed and searched,” Mr. Smith said in an email.
After the man was led away, several passengers said the group was moved into another room. “All we knew is all of a sudden they said ‘everybody move, we’re moving you’, said Roey Rosenblith, an American businessman living in Uganda who was also on the flight. Mr. Haskell confirmed in a phone conversation with me that passengers were told, “I’m sure you all saw what happened and can read between the lines and figure out why you are being moved,” which he said he interpreted as a reference to the passenger who had been led away by police.
According to Mr. Smith, a search of the man’s bag, proved negative and he was released. Mr. Smith declined to identify the passenger who was questioned.
Security experts meanwhile tell me they are concerned about the handling of Flight 253 passengers. “As soon as the plane landed, all the people should have been led off the airplane as fast as possible, said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, intelligence and security studies at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and an aviation security expert with the Transportation Research Board.
In fact, when the plane landed, luggage in the airplane cargo hold was unloaded on the tarmac and searched, according to Mr. Smith but hand luggage was not inspected at all. Passengers told me it was 45 minutes to an hour before police dogs were brought into the area where they were being held.
“How do you know somebody else didn’t have something on them?” Mr. Bloom asked, calling the handling a security shortfall. “There should have been an immediate search of each individual leaving all the stuff in the aircraft for a search of what might have been dangerous.”
A former chief of staff for the Federal Aviation Administration, said “This is a big deal because of the outrageous number of security breaches that event has brought to light.” Michael Goldfarb, now a private aviation consultant said “Clearly the passengers should have been taken off the plane and all their bags searched. Most security people would say, don’t touch the scene, prudent security would be to not touch the scene."
On Friday, a European aviation expert who asked not to be identified told me that a search of the hand luggage separate from the passengers and prior to bringing it into the airport would have been reasonable, though he did not think there were specific regulations requring it.