Airline Hoaxes No Joke: From Bomb Threats to Malicious Tweets

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In the latest malicious hoax involving aircraft, last week AirAsia, a Malaysian air carrier, took to tweeting to quash rumors one of its planes had been involved in a deadly crash. False claims including bomb threats by mothers angry with their daughter's choice of fiance, or passengers high on Ambien are no laughing matter – officials tell AOL Travel these hoaxes impact thousands of people and cost airlines millions of dollars.

Yet the hoaxes keep persisting. In December, a Russian mother called in a bomb threat because she didn't want her daughter to fly off to marry a man she didn't approve of. A few days later a disgruntled Vietnam Airlines flight attendant was arrested for texting a fake bomb threat in Hanoi. Both incidents tied up passengers for hours.

And Douglas Laird, former director of security for Northwest Airlines and now a security consultant, tells AOL Travel News in times of international strife, such as wars and natural disasters, the number of "threats" against airplanes tends to increase.

"When I was at Northwest and we went into the first Gulf War there was a whole barrage of (fake) bomb threats," Laird says.

But not all the threats are taken seriously, and of the many threats that come in, not all become public knowledge, he adds.

"There are some very specific procedures in place that all the world's airlines use. If they are evaluating the information correctly, it is seldom you'd divert a flight," Laird says.

The security directors of the 230 or so airlines that belong to the International Air Transport Association get together at least once a year to discuss hoaxes, among other issues. "Everyone is on the same sheet of music," Laird says.

So who are the people putting airline passengers – not to mention their families – on a sometimes terrifying emotional roller coaster, as planes are searched, diverted and delayed?

"Sometimes they are done by people who are going to miss a flight," Laird says.

In August 2009, a businessman in India called in a bomb threat on his cellphone while stuck in traffic on his way to an IndiGo plane. He later told police he was concerned about being late for his flight.

Hoaxes are also perpetrated by people "who just think it's cute," Laird adds. "It's the same people who write on the mirror in the lavatory that there's a bomb on the airplane. It does happen worldwide."

Sometimes, those making threats are also unruly passengers, he adds.

When he was heading security at Northwest back in the 1990s, Laird says the airline would get one or two fake bomb threats a week. "But the public never knows about them," he says.

"To the best of my knowledge there has never been a [phoned in] threat where there's actually a bomb, not that that couldn't happen," Laird adds.

When a hoax is taken seriously to divert a plane, the diversion could potentially cost the airline hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, Laird says.

There are costs for housing and accommodating passengers: the plane doesn't reach its destination so can't go on from there to another destination on time, hundreds of thousands of pounds of fuel may have to be dumped, and more.

"So it's all that revenue and it's just awful," Laird says. "And the hoaxes we hear about are just the tip of the iceberg. It's not funny and it's actually very dangerous."

Laird notes that aviation diversions "99 times out of 100" work out fine, but you want to avoid situations such as having to have a pilot land at an unfamiliar airport if at all possible, he says.

"This is no joke," Laird adds. "These are things you don't want to happen."

Recent incidents

Crash Rumors on Twitter and Facebook Plague AirAsia, March 2011

AirAsia advised the public last week to disregard a stream of messages circulating on social media that falsely claimed one of its flights had crashed at the at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, killing dozens, after rumors began circulating on Twitter and Facebook. "That is not true, it's just a rumor," the air carrier tweeted.

Homeless Hoax on Virgin Blue, Feb. 2011

A homeless Australian man who saved up his disability pension to buy an airline ticket from Adelaide to Perth was arrested after telling cabin crew on a Virgin Blue flight not to touch his bag of weapons and bombs. The first-time flier was also exhibiting strange behavior, officials said.

New Job, Old Threat, Feb. 2011

A woman in Chile called in a fake bomb threat to keep her boyfriend from flying off to a new job. The call delayed an Iberia flight bound for Madrid.

Bag Bomb Hoax on JetBlue, Jan. 2011

Greater Rochester International Airport in New York was shut down for about three hours after an Italian man allegedly told a JetBlue ticket agent he had a bomb in one of his bags.

Vietnam Airlines Flight Attendant Makes Threat, Dec. 2010

A Vietnam Airlines flight attendant was arrested for texting a fake bomb threat in Hanoi. Nguyen Bang Viet, 36, sent the message back in October to the head air steward on a flight from Hanoi's Noi Bai International Airport, claiming there was a bomb onboard the plane. The flight was canceled and more than a hundred passengers had to be put on other flights.

The Fax Bomb Threat, Dec. 2010

A Russia-bound Aeroflot flight was evacuated at a Berlin airport after a bomb threat. But German officials say no bomb was found onboard, and the incident was a hoax. The threat was reportedly sent by fax several German news outlets. The 140 passengers were delayed five hours as the plane was searched.

Mother Unhappy With Daughter's Fiance, Calls in Bomb Threat, Nov. 2010

A Russian woman who didn't like her daughter's choice of husband, was charged with calling in a fake bomb threat to a Moscow airport in an attempt to stop her daughter from getting married. Airport officials delayed the flight while a search was conducted.

Bomb Note on Bathroom Mirror, Sept. 2010

A threatening note scrawled on a bathroom mirror prompted police to search a Thai Airways jet for bombs after the plane landed at Los Angeles International Airport. No bombs were found.

Canadian Causes Chaos, Sept. 2010

A call from Canada forced a Pakistan-bound plane to divert to Stockholm. Swedish police evacuated the Pakistan International Airlines jet with 273 onboard and a SWAT team arrested a Canadian man who the anonymous caller said was carrying explosives. None were found, but passengers waited nine hours before continuing their flight.

Man's Bad "Joke" Causes Six Hour Delay, May 2010

A Shanghai-bound China Airlines flight from Taipei was forced to divert after an American passenger claimed to have a bomb in his luggage. On his arrest, the man told authoriies he was making "a joke." The 292 other passengers were delayed six hours as security checks were conducted.

Vet Makes Threat, April 2010

A decorated U.S. veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was charged with making a false bomb threat, causing the emergency diversion of an Atlanta-bound Delta Air Lines flight from Paris to Maine. Derek Stansberry, 27, blamed the medication Ambien.

(Kim Foley MacKinnon contributed to this report.)

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