TEL AVIV, Israel – An El Al flight from New York that was escorted by military jets in Europe following a bomb threat landed safely in Israel on Tuesday.
El Al President David Maimon said Flight 002 from John F. Kennedy airport touched down midday after an anonymous tip was received regarding a potential bomb threat onboard. Following the tip, France and Switzerland deployed military jets over their airspaces as escorts for the Boeing 747 plane flying toward Israel.
The threat was ultimately unfounded but it marked a rare security scare for El Al, generally regarded as one of the world’s most secure airlines.
At Ben-Gurion Airport, worried relatives awaited passengers in the arrival hall. The passengers themselves said they were unaware of the drama until landing.
“We came out of the plane, there was somebody from the news who asked if we know anything and we said we didn’t feel anything,” said Rivi Aharon. “He said they thought there was a bomb on the plane so I was very nervous.”
Another passenger, David Machlis, said he too was surprised.
“I heard that the plane was accompanied by a fighter plane,” he said. “But I did not see it … Not knowing was the best situation in my opinion.”
The Swiss air force said in a statement that it deployed jets around 8:30 a.m. (0630 GMT) on a so-called “hot mission,” that accompanied the flight. Vladi Barrosa, a spokesman for the Swiss government-run air navigation service Skyguide, said the plane left Swiss airspace safely into Austrian airspace.
The incident caused concern among locals in Switzerland after sonic booms echoed when the two Swiss F/A-18 aircraft were deployed for the escort. Barrosa, working in the Zurich area, said he too heard the blasts: “I thought my windows were about to burst.”
Barrosa said American authorities had alerted their European colleagues that “there might be a bomb in the galley of the airplane.”
He said jets are typically scrambled in these cases to relay the location of the plane and to establish visual contact with the pilots. They are also in place for the worst case scenario in which they would be required to shoot down the plane if it were hijacked and posed an imminent threat to targets on the ground.
The French air force said it also scrambled jets from an air base in Creil, north of Paris, after receiving a warning from an ally.
A spokeswoman, who was not authorized to be publicly named according to military policy, said jets accompanied the El Al flight from the moment it entered French airspace at the Atlantic Coast of Cherbourg until it crossed the Alps into Switzerland.
The El Al pilot was in constant contact with the French pilot and with officials monitoring the air space, she said, adding that if it had been a confirmed threat they would have ordered an emergency landing.
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.