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Frontier denies strip-searched flier Shoshana Hebshi racially profiled on 9/11 anniversary

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Update: Early reporting about a Frontier flight from Denver to Detroit on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 suggested, inaccurately, that fighter jets had been scrambled after a couple tried to join the Mile High Club in the plane's lavatory. Now, however, the tale's morphed, with Shoshana Hebshi, one of three passengers detained, charging that she was racially profiled -- an allegation a Frontier spokesman passionately denies.

Hebshi, who describes herself as half-Arab and half-Jewish, told the Associated Press that she was seated in the same row as two men of Indian descent, neither of whom she knew. One of the men reportedly became ill and spent what's been described as an inordinately long time in the plane's restroom, and the other used the facilities, too.

For whatever reason, these actions prompted security concerns, and as a result, F-16s were scrambled and authorities detained the trio upon landing. Hebshi says she was handcuffed, strip-searched and interrogated for four hours before being released.

Hebshi's story has stirred controversy, with reports like the one below arguing that the trio was actually detained for the crime of having dark skin on a day when paranoia was running high. But Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuk stresses that the airline's personnel did not engage in racial profiling.

"The primary responsibility of our flight crews -- our pilots and flight attendants -- is the safety of all passengers on board the aircraft at all times," he writes via e-mail. "Last Sunday, September 11, they followed security protocols and responded to concerns expressed by passengers on the aircraft about the suspicious activity of two gentlemen -- and only two gentlemen -- onboard flight 623. After that, what happened was out of the control of the Frontier crew.

"On landing, and as the captain was heading for his gate, he was directed to a remote pad and ordered to await authorities. When they arrived and boarded the aircraft, the authorities did not consult any member of the crew -- not the pilots, not the flight attendants -- before taking action and removing the two men and a third person, Ms. Hebshi. All actions taken by the authorities after the suspicious activity was reported were their own and were made without any further involvement from Frontier or any company employee. No passengers, other than the two gentlemen, were reported by Frontier nor was any further action taken by Frontier."

But while Frontier had no involvement in the decision to handcuff, strip-search and interrogate Hebshi, authorities wouldn't have reacted had they not been alerted to a potential security issue by the flight's staff. Still, Kowalchuk sees the actions of Frontier personnel as not only justified, but laudatory.

"The crew members saw activity that was suspicious in nature and took the appropriate action based on that activity, not based on the people who were engaged in that activity or what they looked like or where they might have been from," he maintains. "There was no profiling of any kind associated with this incident other than that of unusual and suspicious behavior. Indeed, there was vigilance on the behalf of the flight crew that is the norm on every flight by every flight crew.

"It is unusual for people to spend ten to twenty minutes in the very small lavatories on our Airbus aircraft," he adds. "When that happens, it raises suspicions. It did in this case, both in the minds of our guests and the flight crew. They acted appropriately."

To underline the responsiveness of Frontier employees to passenger's worries, Kowalchuk poses the following question: "If one or more of your readers saw something that concerned them and they expressed their concern to a member of the crew who did nothing to check it out, would your readers think, 'That's okay, I'm much more comfortable knowing that Frontier doesn't care about my safety'?"

That the incident took place on such a high-profile anniversary also must be taken into account, he feels -- at least from a law-enforcement perspective. "The heightened security of the day and the fact that there had been other similar incidents on Sunday could have been factors in the way authorities responded, he allows. However, "it was not a factor in the way the Frontier crew responded. They saw behavior that concerned them and their guests and acted appropriately. What happened after that was determined by the responding authorities. Our duty and that of our flight crews is to ensure the safety of our passengers and we would never interfere with the authorities as they work to do the same."

Here's the aforementioned report about Hebshi, followed by our earlier coverage.

Update, 7:27 a.m. September 13:

What a disappointment. Yesterday, ABC News quoted a law-enforcement source as saying the "suspicious behavior" that had caused fighter jets to shadow a Frontier flight from Denver to Detroit on the

tenth anniversary of 9/11

had involved "making out" in the bathroom. However, new information suggests that the actual cause of an inordinately long stay in the airplane lavatory was air sickness.

The Detroit Free Press quotes an FBI spokeswoman clearly frustrated by references to airborne sexual encounters "spinning out of control." In truth, she says that of the three people detained and questioned, one man was ill, another just had to use the restroom, and a woman appears to have drawn scrutiny simply because she was sitting in the same row with them. Moreover, none of the three knew each other.

This latest info continues to suggest an over-the-top security response likely inspired by 9/11 paranoia. But the reason for the reaction is no longer so amusing. Damn the luck. See our earlier coverage below.

Original item followed by update, September 12: If a couple can't attempt to join the Mile High Club in an airplane bathroom on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 without causing a major security incident, does that mean the terrorists have won?

That's a question posed by the Gothamist following an ABC News report that F-16s were scrambled to shadow a flight from Denver to Detroit because a couple was getting very familiar in the lavatory.

In the beginning, most news outlets, including 9News in Denver, lumped the Frontier incident in with security responses to two other flights in the U.S. on Sunday. The most frequent quote used: a statement from FBI spokesman Dave Joly, who said fighter jets were scrambled out of an "abundance of caution." And while 9News also quoted Frontier's Peter Kowalchuk as saying this reaction was spurred by a couple taking "an extraordinarily long time" in the bathroom, the incident didn't take a turn for the lascivious until ABC News quoted a law enforcement source as saying the allegedly suspicious behavior that had raised concerns in the first place actually involved a couple "making out" in the bathroom.

Hard to know at this point if the conclusion is based on speculation, interviews with the alleged lovers or perhaps some extra special security footage. We've left messages with Kowalchuk in an effort to clear the air, as it were, and if and when he responds, we'll update this post.

In the meantime, we ask this question: Can getting nasty in flight be considered a terrorist act?

Update, 10:51 a.m. September 12: We've now heard back from Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuk, who provides the company's official statement. It includes the reference to "an extraordinarily long time" spent in the bathroom that's mentioned above. Kowalchuk says he's received no additional information. The statement reads:

Two passengers were observed behaving suspiciously on Frontier flight 623 from Denver to Detroit (flight originated in San Diego)... spending an extraordinarily long time in the lavatory. Authorities were contacted. When the aircraft landed, it was directed to a pad a distance from the concourse. TSA and local authorities were bused to the aircraft to investigate. Three passengers were removed from the aircraft and taken into custody. Luggage was removed from the plane for K9 inspection. Passengers were bused to the terminal.

Aircraft was an Airbus A318. 116 passengers aboard.

Authorities are investigating. Further information on the passengers taken into custody or the investigation will have to come from authorities (local police, TSA, FBI).

Look below to see the aforementioned 9News and ABC News reports:

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More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Murali Krishna Nookella, solo member of the Mile High Club: He's accused of a mid-flight wank."

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