WASHINGTON — Federal air marshals confronted a passenger who had apparently lighted a cigarette in an airline lavatory on Wednesday night, leading Norad to scramble two fighter jets and a phalanx of law enforcement officials to meet the plane, United Flight 663, when it landed at Denver International Airport.
But there was no immediate indication of terrorism. A federal official speaking on condition that he not be identified by name said that the passenger had gone to the bathroom to smoke a cigarette, claimed he had diplomatic immunity and made sarcastic comments that the marshals took as a threat.
“The situation here is not like the shoe bomber on Christmas,” the official said, referring to the passenger on an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight who is charged with trying to set off a bomb in his underwear, not his shoe. Various news reports identified the man in Wednesday’s incident as a Qatari diplomat. Dave Klaversma, of Parker, Colo., said wife, Laura, was seated behind the man in first class. Mr. Klaversma said his wife told him that the man got up to go to the bathroom at some point during the flight and that someone else in first class alerted the crew about something the man had done.
When he came out of the bathroom, two people also seated in first class — who turned out to be air marshals — were waiting for him. Mr. Klaversma said his wife told him that the air marshals sat with the man throughout the rest of the flight.
“It was all done very quietly,” he said, “there was no struggle, no uproar.” Mr. Klaversma said his wife told him there was no hysteria and it was all very calm.
The plane, which left Washington at 5:33 p.m. Eastern Time, landed in Denver about 6:50 p.m. Mountain Time.
After the cockpit crew requested that the plane be met by law enforcement, The North American Aerospace Defense Command scrambled two F-16 fighters from Buckley Air Force Base, in Colorado, to intercept the plane. They escorted it for the last five minutes of its flight.
Initial reports said the passenger might have been trying to set something on fire. But several law enforcement officials said no explosive had been found on the plane. Still, the man was being questioned by the F.B.I., as were fellow passengers.A Department of Homeland Security official, speaking on background, said it appeared the man had been smoking a cigarette in the bathroom, had tried to cover it up, and then had made an “unfortunate comment.”
NBC News reported that a half-hour before landing, the air marshal smelled smoke and confronted the man as he emerged from a bathroom. The man claimed he had been trying to set his shoes on fire
, the report said.
One passenger, Scott Smith, said the plane made what appeared to be an abrupt, sharp descent outside of Denver without warning. "I’ve never seen a jet liner do that," he said, noting the plane flew low for what seemed like a long period of time. "It was a very unusual approach."
Once the plane landed, he noticed something was odd because flight attendants and pilot didn’t make any welcoming announcements. He said the aircraft sat there for about an hour. A pilot said over the intercom that " we have a situation on the plane. we need to stay here."
The man was then escorted off the plane by the authorities, Mr. Smith said.