WASHINGTON – A Continental Airlines jetliner flying from Newark, New Jersey, to Bogota, Colombia, was diverted to Jacksonville, Florida, on Friday over suspicion that a passenger was on the government's watch list of suspected terrorists banned from commercial flights. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.
The passenger — one of 75 on board — was cleared by the FBI at Jacksonville International Airport and permitted to continue on the flight to Colombia, the Transportation Security Administration said.
Despite its safe conclusion, the tense situation that arose from diverting a passenger jet after takeoff because of security fears was unlikely to ease the anxiety of the American flying public after the Christmas Day episode in which a Nigerian passenger is accused of trying to explode a bomb inside a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan.
In Friday's incident, the government was expected to investigate how the passenger was allowed to board the plane before being positively deemed safe.
An airline is not supposed to issue a boarding pass to a person on the government's no-fly list.
It was not immediately clear whether the passenger, who was not identified, went through additional screening in Newark before boarding the plane.
The airlines do not have any information other than the names on the list. Some airlines already have moved to a new identification program, called Secure Flight. All domestic carriers are expected to move to the new program by March.
The government system will include more details about the passenger in question, including the passenger's sex, birth date and full name as it appears on a government identification document.
Under the current system, if a person has a name similar to someone on the no-fly list, that person goes through additional screening. In some instances, that person could be banned from boarding the flight. The new system will show more details about passengers.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers recently that two carriers she did not identify publicly will not meet the March deadline. She said the carriers would be a month or two late.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged in the Detroit incident, was not on the government's no-fly list or the list of people who should receive additional screening before boarding a plane. There are more than 3,000 names on the no-fly list and about 14,000 names on a list of people who require extra scrutiny. Abdulmutallab was on that exhaustive list.