Flight took off with disruptive passenger despite red flags

SHARE Flight took off with disruptive passenger despite red flags

Anil Uskanli is escorted off an American Airlines flight after it landed in Honolulu, on Friday, May 19, 2017. Court records say the man who caused a disturbance on a flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu had no luggage other than a laptop and needed a wheelchair to board the plane because he appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. | Donna Basden via AP

HONOLULU — Anil Uskanli, who authorities say inspired so much fear among flight attendants that military fighter jets were scrambled to escort the plane to Hawaii, raised a series of possible red flags between purchasing his ticket and being the first passenger to board the American Airlines flight.

Uskanli, 25, of Turkey, purchased his ticket about midnight and went through security screening at Los Angeles International Airport. About 2:45 a.m. he opened a door that led to an airfield ramp, airport police said.

He smelled of alcohol, but he wasn’t intoxicated enough to be held for public drunkenness, so police cited and released him.

Uskanli’s boarding pass was confiscated, and he was walked out to a public area of the airport, police said. He went back, got another boarding pass for the flight and went through security screening again.

Even though he was traveling to Hawaii, he didn’t have any checked luggage or any carry-ons, other than a laptop, a phone and items in his pocket, according an FBI criminal complaint.

Before takeoff, he sat in a first-class seat and had to be asked several times to move to his assigned seat toward the back of the plane, the complaint said.

While the six-hour flight was midair, Uskanli, with his head swathed in a blanket, tried to get to the front of the plane. When he put his laptop on a drink cart a flight attendant used to block him, flight attendants feared the computer contained explosives, prompting the captain to initiate bomb-threat procedures. Two Hawaii National Guard fighter jets escorted the plane to Honolulu, and Uskanli was arrested when it landed.

His intentions weren’t known, and a federal judge in Honolulu on Monday ordered Uskanli return to the U.S. mainland to undergo a competency evaluation.

Federal Public Defender Peter Wolff said he requested the evaluation in part because of the actions described in the criminal complaint and because of comments Uskanli made that Wolff declined to describe.

A Turkish interpreter spoke with Uskanli before the brief hearing. Engin Turkalp said outside court that he told her he can speak English.

It’s not common practice for police to notify an airline if someone opens a door to a restricted area, like Uskanli did, Los Angeles airport police spokesman Rob Pedregon said. “If he was a danger, we would not have ever let him go,” he said.

Because he had walked into the restricted area at the airport and he was determined to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, crew members helped him to the plane using a wheelchair, the complaint said.

An American Airlines spokesman said, however, that it was Uskanli who requested the wheelchair at the ticket counter, then went through security and on to the gate for the flight.

At the door of the plane, flight attendants helped Uskanli, the complaint said.

Passengers told the FBI that Uskanli acted strangely on the flight, including talking about being a famous actor and pounding on walls after someone walked into a restroom he had left unlocked.

Flight attendants were afraid of his laptop, the complaint said, because they are aware “that laptop computers potentially pose a new threat to airplane security because they may contain explosives that are undetected by airport screening measures.”

The captain initiated bomb threat procedures, and flight attendants barricaded the laptop with crew bags. An off-duty law enforcement officer sat with Uskanli for the remainder of the flight, the complaint said.

No explosives were found after the plane landed. FBI agents then interviewed Uskanli.

“When I asked him if he ever had terroristic thoughts, he responded, ‘We all have those ideas,’” an agent wrote in an affidavit.

The agent asked again later about terroristic thoughts. In response, Uskanli made a gun shape with his fingers and pretended to shoot her, she wrote.

“He then did a gesture simulating a chopping motion toward my neck,” the agent wrote.

He then told another agent, “I’ll kill her, get out the following day and shoot myself,” according to the court documents.

The complaint said he consented to a urine test and field sobriety tests. The urinalysis was presumptively positive for benzodiazepine, a tranquilizer, and the field tests indicated possible use of stimulants or cannabis, the complaint said.

Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles and David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.

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