British holidaymakers staged an unprecedented mutiny—refusing to allow their flight to take off until two men they feared were terrorists were forcibly removed.
The extraordinary scenes happened after some of the 150 passengers on a Malaga-Manchester flight overheard two men of Asian appearance apparently talking Arabic.
Passengers told cabin crew they feared for their safety and demanded police action. Some stormed off the Monarch Airlines Airbus A320 minutes before it was due to leave the Costa del Sol at 3am. Others waiting for Flight ZB 613 in the departure lounge refused to board it.
The incident fuels the row over airport security following the arrest of more than 20 people allegedly planning the suicide-bombing of transatlantic jets from the UK to America. It comes amid growing demands for passenger-profiling and selective security checks.
It also raised fears that more travellers will take the law into their own hands—effectively conducting their own ‘passenger profiles’.
The passenger revolt came as Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary was accused of using the terror crisis to make money. Government sources say he boasted to an official at the Transport Department: “Every time I appear on TV, I get a spike in sales.”
The Tories said the Government’s failure to reassure travellers had led the Malaga passengers to ‘behave irrationally’ and ‘hand a victory to terrorists’.
Websites used by pilots and cabin crew were yesterday reporting further incidents. In one, two British women with young children on another flight from Spain complained about flying with a bearded Muslim even though he had been security-checked twice before boarding.
The trouble in Malaga flared last Wednesday as two British citizens in their 20s waited in the departure lounge to board the pre-dawn flight and were heard talking what passengers took to be Arabic. Worries spread after a female passenger said she had heard something that alarmed her.
Passengers noticed that, despite the heat, the pair were wearing leather jackets and thick jumpers and were regularly checking their watches.
Initially, six passengers refused to board the flight. On board the aircraft, word reached one family. To the astonishment of cabin crew, they stood up and walked off, followed quickly by others.
The Monarch pilot—a highly experienced captain—accompanied by armed Civil Guard police and airport security staff, approached the two men and took their passports.
Half an hour later, police returned and escorted the two Asian passengers off the jet.
‘There was no fuss or panic’
Soon afterwards, the aircraft was cleared while police did a thorough security sweep. Nothing was found and the plane took off—three hours late and without the two men on board.
Monarch arranged for them to spend the rest of the night in an airport hotel and flew them back to Manchester later on Wednesday.
College lecturer Jo Schofield, her husband Heath and daughters Emily, 15, and Isabel, 12, were caught up in the passenger mutiny.
Mrs Schofield, 38, said: “The plane was not yet full and it became apparent that people were refusing to board. In the gate waiting area, people had been talking about these two, who looked really suspicious with their heavy clothing, scruffy, rough, appearance and long hair.
“Some of the older children, who had seen the terror alert on television, were starting to mutter things like, ‘Those two look like they’re bombers.’
“Then a family stood up and walked off the aircraft. They were joined by others, about eight in all. We learned later that six or seven people had refused to get on the plane.
“There was no fuss or panic. People just calmly and quietly got off the plane. There were no racist taunts or any remarks directed at the men.
“It was an eerie scene, very quiet. The children were starting to ask what was going on. We tried to play it down.”
Mr Schofield, 40, an area sales manager, said: “When the men were taken off they didn’t argue or say a word. They just picked up their coats and obeyed the police. They seemed resigned to the fact they were under suspicion.
“The captain and crew were very apologetic when we were asked to evacuate the plane for the security search. But there was no dissent.
“While we were waiting, everyone agreed the men looked dodgy. Some passengers were very panicky and in tears. There was a lot of talking about terrorists.”
Patrick Mercer, the Tory Homeland Security spokesman, said last night: “This is a victory for terrorists. These people on the flight have been terrorised into behaving irrationally.
“For those unfortunate two men to be victimised because of the colour of their skin is just nonsense.”
Monarch said last night: “The captain was concerned about the security surrounding the two gentlemen on the aircraft and the decision was taken to remove them from the flight for further security checks.
“The two passengers offloaded from the flight were later cleared by airport security and rebooked to travel back to Manchester on a later flight.”
A spokesman for the Civil Guard in Malaga said: “These men had aroused suspicion because of their appearance and the fact that they were speaking in a foreign language thought to be an Arabic language, and the pilot was refusing to take off until they were escorted off the plane.”