Editor’s note: New Orleans resident Richard Goodman was on board United Airlines Flight 831, which was the subject of a bomb threat investigation after it landed at the Louis Armstrong International Airport on Saturday. This is his account of the experience.
All I expected was a series of normal flights home when I boarded my plane in Sofia, Bulgaria yesterday morning at 6:30am. I would fly to Frankfurt, then to Newark in the US, and, finally, to New Orleans, where I live. In fact, long though the day was, until we touched down at Louis Armstrong Airport 45 minutes early at 5:45 pm, it was just that—normal. The planes were full, and the seats, especially on the eight-hour flight from Frankfurt, were ridiculously, contortionally narrow, and so sleeping was a Houdini-like effort, but there wasn’t anything I hadn’t experienced before. I was fatigued by the time we landed in NOLA, and I was ready to go home. It seem a good sign that we were early—a gift.
The gift was rescinded. We landed, and we taxied. We stopped. We weren’t tethered to one of those vacuum-like jetports, though, per usual. We stopped on the tarmac. But, well, we’ve all been stopped on the tarmac before, waiting for a gate to be freed or for some never-to-be-explained airport situation. You just wait, don’t you? The plane, United Flight 0831, depending on what ticket you had, was, as I said, full. The cabin was cool, so we didn’t have any no-AC kind of horror building up. We just sat there. Next to me were two young women who were visiting New Orleans, gleefully planning their trip. “I hope,” one of them said at one point, “that this doesn’t turn out to be one of those, ‘What happens in New Orleans stays in New Orleans’ kind of trips.” The other quickly replied, “I do.”
Then the intercom went on, and we heard the captain speak.
“Ladies and gentlemen, there seems to be an incident going on now. I don’t have all the information, but it appears there’s been a bomb threat here.”
Reaction from the passengers? Pretty much stillness.
“That’s why we’re here parked so far away from the terminal. I don’t know exactly what will happen from here on in, but I’ll give you information as soon as I receive it. You know about as much as I do at this point.”
Bomb threat? Who? Where? When? Did the captain mean, possibly, that there might be a bomb on board?
Those words “Bomb threat” will certainly make you focus.
No one panicked. Very soon, though, we started to ask ourselves, “Well, if there is a bomb threat, why aren’t they getting us off the plane?”
After that, everything went forward—at least to my mind and I know to many others—
in a pretty bizarre and somewhat illogical way. It seemed, in a way, that the plane might be more valuable than we were.
About five or 10 minutes later, the captain came on the intercom again.
“It seems there was a note left on the plane, and so we are going to deplane those passengers in the area where the note was found first. Then we’ll deplane everyone else and bus you to all the terminal.”
Ok, we could handle that. If, in fact, that was to be it.
This, slowly but surely, they did. When we deplaned, we were met by emergency vehicles—one from a fire department whose shape and purpose seemed strangely indeterminate to me and cars with flashing lights and fire engines with flashing lights—and a K-9 officer with his German Shepherd. We were told to put allour carry-on luggage on the ground before us. Then the lively – and, it seemed to me, ecstatic -- dog went briefly from backpack to duffle bag to purse, sniffing, for the barest moment, only to turn up . . . nothing. We were then bused to a part of terminal A that was obviously unused. It was empty and unkempt. It either, depending on your take, looked like it was under the final stages of construction or the day after a large college fraternity party. We were herded in there—I’d say, with about 40 seats in the plane, six to a row, and counting first class, about 150 of us. Then, one by one, we had to be interviewed by a single FBI official, a somewhat personable man. This took about three hours. He took everyone’s information down by hand. Now, it struck me at one point that this was America’s FBI working here, and so it seemed—as the organization prides itself on being technologically current—that he might have a computer with him. This didn’t seem to be too much to ask from our premier domestic intelligence agency. But no: He had a fountain pen.
Meanwhile, certain questions arouse. When I had made my way to the cabin door, the captain was standing just outside the cockpit talking to us we left.
“You mean,” I asked him, “that you found this note while we were flying?”
“Yes,” he said.
“So, somebody found it on their seat or something and then told you?”
One question, that came to me and to others, was, “Well, if there was a note that was a bomb threat, why didn’t we land earlier?”
We never found an answer to that question.
In the end, I know very little about the nature of the threat.
After people were interviewed by the single FBI agent, they had to be interviewed by a group of TSA agents who arrived sometime during this process. Meanwhile, airport personnel passed out small bottles of water and some snacks. The passengers did not complain—that always makes me feel a sense of pride—and the mood was basically calm and resigned. This is 2015, after all, and we are used to the world encroaching on our daily lives in circumstances like this. What can we do, anyway?
I stood in the queue like everyone else as it moved slowly forward like a Depression-era bread line. If anything is good about something like this, it’s getting to know your fellow passengers as you wait and wait and wait. They were all unfailingly genial and forthcoming. It’s amazing how quickly and openly people will talk about themselves in these situations. I learned that those passengers who sat closest to where the bomb note was found—I still have no idea what the note said—were taken to a house somewhere away from the terminal to be interrogated. Families were split up. One man said, “They’ve got my wife and daughter and her two young children. One has a fever of 101.4.”
I learned about plans young people had after graduation, what sports they’d played in high school, where they lived—one couple had four hours to drive after they were released from this—and where they’d come from before landing. It was impossible to complain, when you saw young mothers caring for toddlers and infants dutifully.
We never found out anything about what this was all about. No one, not the TSA agents—of whom there were six or seven—not the FBI agent, not the airport personnel who spoke to us—ever gave us a snippet of information. No one was released after they were interrogated. Everyone had to sit and wait until the very last person had been interviewed. We spent about four hours in that drab terminal.
My turn came. What did the FBI agent ask me? He wanted my passport information, of course. And: Where was I flying from? What seat did I have (27C), what was my phone number, what was my address, did I see anything suspicious? You might think they would know this, and a lot more, about us already, especially since our information was in the United Airlines system. The TSA official asked me the same things.
The five or six TSA officials, all of them in very informal civilian clothes, all them carrying handguns, all of them men, all of them chewing gum purposefully—all of them, after they finished asking us questions, stood around together and told stories and laughed and had a good old time. What could they do instead? Well, look serious, for one, because we were all exhausted and babies were hungry and no one in our group was laughing. Don’t act like the Elks’ Club at a Saturday evening barbecue. And, just maybe, walk around and talk to people and tell them as much as you can about what’s going on and why. Sympathize, in other words.
Once through interrogation, we had to wait longer. We had to wait for—a phone call. From whom? Mr. Big, I guessed. That took another 40 minutes or so. We were finally released. It was about ten o’clock. One burly TSA agent, a cellphone to his ear, raised an arm, said,“Listen up! Y’all can go.”
We left to gather our luggage, which had been deposited as far away from us as possible. Some people had to wait in yet another line to procure a voucher for a cab for the ride they’d missed. The United Airlines baggage claim desk was manned by a single person. I felt very sorry for those who had to wait God knows how long to get that sliver of paper. My luggage wasn’t there yet—this is four hours after the plane landed—and I had to wait until it finally cruised toward me on the conveyor belt. I got in line for a taxi in the New Orleans night, having been up roughly 25 hours straight at this point, and headed home. I hoped all the others would soon be home, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the case for at least some of them.
This morning I received one of those cautious, innocuous and non-committal e-mails from United about the experience: “As you may know, a security concern arose upon landing. While the issue turned out to be minor. We recognize that this situation may have been time consuming and frustrating for you. Please know we do evaluate our performance on every level so our recovery efforts go smoothly in the future.” They should at least do as thorough a grammar check as they do their background checks.
I never did find out what happened. But I’m safe, and, thinking of all the good passengers I met, you need to put things in perspective, don’t you think?
Richard Goodman is an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans, where he specializes in nonfiction writing. He is the author, most recently, of “The Bicycle Diaries: One New Yorker's Journey Through 9-11.”