An AirTran flight from Newark bound for Atlanta made an emergency stop Sunday morning at Raleigh-Durham International Airport when a passenger paced the plane and refused to take his seat while observing his morning prayers.
The passenger, whom the airline declined to name, was escorted off the plane by airport police and questioned just after 8 a.m. No charges were filed, and the passenger boarded the next AirTran flight headed toward Atlanta.
Airline and airport officials called the incident a misunderstanding and the emergency landing a rare event. The passenger, who practices a certain sect of Judaism, was a novice air traveler who didn't understand air security policies, said Tad Hutcheson, an AirTran spokesman.
"He was trying to practice his religion and ignored everyone else in the process, including the crew," said Hutcheson. "It's a free country and you can do what you want, but on an airplane, you can't do it as freely these days."
Shortly after the 117-passenger jet took off Sunday morning, the passenger reached for his luggage and grabbed a change of clothes, Hutcheson said.
He went to the lavatory, changed clothes and wrapped his hands in gloves. He changed seats several times before settling in the rear of the cabin, where he walked back and forth, raising his hands toward the air.
Hutcheson said he ignored the flight attendants' requests to sit down, even when the captain advised all of the 35 passengers to sit down.
When the pilot peeked into the cabin and witnessed the passenger's display, he radioed to the Raleigh-Durham airport and asked for permission to land because of "possible suspicious behavior" on board, said Valerie Bew, RDU operations officer.
"We prefer to work any problems we have out on the ground, instead of in the air," Hutcheson said.
After dropping off the passenger, the other 34 passengers were back on their way. Their flight arrived in Atlanta about a half-hour behind schedule.
Hutcheson said the passenger "was embarrassed he inconvenienced his fellow passengers."
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