Irish Pilots, Ryanair Question Why Passengers Kept on Bomb-Scare Plane

DUBLIN, Ireland_Budget airline Ryanair and Ireland's pilots association demanded Thursday to know why passengers were kept inside a grounded plane for 2 1/2 hours while British authorities searched it for a possible bomb.

But Scotland's Strathclyde Police defended the decision to keep all 167 passengers and five crew members inside the Ryanair plane during Wednesday's search of the cabin and baggage by explosives experts and sniffer dogs.

The aircraft was diverted by Royal Air Force jets to Prestwick Airport, west of Glasgow, after a passenger found a written bomb threat in a magazine. The threat turned out to be a hoax and all passengers arrived in Dublin 10 hours late - after each was photographed and interviewed by detectives.

"The decision to keep people on board was as a result of a full risk assessment carried out by Strathclyde Police," the force said in a statement. "At all times the safety and well being of passengers was a priority. If, at any time, an assessment was made that the passengers were in any immediate danger, they would have immediately been evacuated from the aircraft."

Pauline McAlester, a spokeswoman for Ryanair Holdings PLC, emphasized that the airline's preferred policy would be to get people away from a plane if a bomb was suspected of being on board. "It was at the insistence of the police and security authorities that the passengers remained on board," she said.

Ireland's independent commercial pilots organization pledged to investigate why the Ryanair pilots' reported demands for an immediate evacuation were rebuffed.

"The biggest concern I have is why people were left on that aircraft when there was a perceived threat," said Capt. Evan Collins of Ireland's Airline Pilots Association.

"Pilots have a statutory obligation to protect the safety of their passengers and crew," Collins said. "These pilots wanted to make a decision and were not allowed to do so."

When the flight that originated in Beauvais Airport, near Paris, finally landed shortly before midnight in Dublin, some of the passengers were crying and visibly angry. Among them were more than 70 Irish schoolgirls who had just completed a school trip.

"The crew were superb, and people weren't panicking," said passenger Charlie Fitzgerald of Belfast. "The pilot appealed and appealed to get us off the plane. He said later if a real bomb had been on board, we would have been blown up to high heaven. ... The whole thing was absolutely disgraceful."