A joke by an American passenger traveling to the Dominican Republic caused panic among passengers and the airplane crew and caused authorities to isolate the plane for more than an hour on the tarmac.
An unidentified passenger traveling from Philadelphia to Punta Cana yelled out, “I’ve been to Africa!,” just before US Airways flight 845 landed on the Caribbean island, an airport official told Fox News Latino.
Initial reports by the Dominican press and on social media said the passenger had yelled, "I have Ebola!"
The shout caused major concern and panic among passengers and crew because of the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa that has claimed nearly 4,000 lives.
Once the plane landed at Punta Cana International Airport, precautions were taken quickly to ensure the safety of the travelers.
Emergency personnel wearing blue hazmat suits boarded the plane and the passenger was taken to the airport’s medical center for tests.
The passenger, who officials have only identified as a man from North America, was reportedly coughing during the flight. Medics verified that the passenger did not have a fever – a key early symptom of Ebola.
While airport officials would not identify the passenger, a video taken from the plane and posted online shows emergency personnel escorting an African-American man off the flight as the rest of the plane watches.
In the video, he is heard saying, “I ain’t from Africa.”
Reports from local press said the man appeared to be “unbalanced,” although officials would not elaborate on what that meant.
Paola Rainieri, vice president of marketing and communications for Grupo Punta Cana, which owns the airport, told FNL that the airplane was held on the tarmac for nearly two hours until medical and airline officials determined there was no risk to the 200-plus passengers.
Reached for comment, a US Airways representative confirmed the incident, saying in a statement that the flight was cleared by local authorities.
"We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused, but the safety of our customers and crews is our main priority," the statement said.
Rainieri described the incident as a “joke of poor taste” by the passenger, who had not traveled to Africa recently. According to Rainieri, the man's passport showed that the last trip he had taken anywhere close to Africa was a 2012 trip to Europe.
“We don’t know why he did it, but he thought it would be a cute joke that would not be so serious,” she said. “Thankfully it was only a scare.”
Rainieri said that while the incident did not end up as being serious as it might have been, airport officials took all precautions. She said they have medic teams on hand for such situations, and this incident proved to them that they are prepared.
She added that several days ago, with the increased threat of Ebola spreading internationally, airport and immigration officials added precautionary steps for travelers – including a questionnaire asking if they have traveled to Africa recently, and if they have any of the symptoms of the disease.
“We have to be responsible,” Rainieri said. “As an airport, we are ready for anything.”
She said the passenger had filled out the questionnaire and noted that he had not been to Africa lately.
“Incidents like these affect the country, it affects people on the island,” Rainieri said when asked about the event's potential affect on tourism. “It scares passengers and would make them not travel to the Dominican Republic.”
Arturo Villanueva, vice president of the Hotel and Tourism Association of the Dominican Republic (ASONAHORES), agreed with Rainieri.
“We have to think about the country and about the population,” he told FNL. “Ebola has become an international problem. That someone has made a joke of this is inexcusable."
He said steps need to be taken so incidents like these don’t happen again.
“We will demand to the appropriate authorities the immediate deportation of this passenger to his home country,” Villanueva said.
There have been no reported cases of Ebola in the Dominican Republic or elsewhere in the Caribbean and the rest of Latin America.