HOUSTON — A stick of dynamite was found in a college student’s checked luggage on a Continental Airlines flight from Argentina, one of seven security incidents Friday that caused U.S. flights to be diverted, evacuated, searched or delayed.
Howard McFarland Fish, 21, was charged with carrying an explosive aboard an aircraft and was in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Federal authorities have determined that his actions were not acts of terrorism, ICE spokeswoman Luisa Deason said in a statement.
Houston Fire Department Assistant Chief Omero Longoria said Fish told authorities he works in mining and often handles explosives. Longoria said federal officials were investigating whether the explanation was true.
Bill Waldock, aviation safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, said the incident could have been disastrous and raises questions about security in overseas airports. Dynamite can be unstable if it’s old, he added.
“You’re in a pressurized airplane, you get a detonation in the cargo hold, it could blow a hole in the airplane big enough to bring it down,” he said.
But each flight interruption costs airlines tens of thousands of dollars, according to NBC News’ Kevin Tibbles, in additional fuel and crew costs.
“We could strip-search every person and be totally secure, but then how many people would fly? And how long would it take to board a plane?” Terry Trippler, airline analyst, told NBC. “We have to draw a line between safety and the economics of the situation.”
The dynamite was found during a luggage search in a federal inspection station at Bush Intercontinental Airport shortly after Flight 52 landed at about 6 a.m.
Marlene McClinton, spokeswoman for the Houston Airport System, said ICE officials and the FBI shut down the customs area and began questioning Fish, one of 173 passengers on the flight.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston said Fish, of Connecticut, would appear before a federal magistrate Monday. Carrying an explosive aboard an aircraft carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Argentina’s chief of airport security police, Marcelo Sain, said in a televised interview Friday that authorities there were in contact with U.S. officials as they opened their own probe into how explosives got into checked baggage on the U.S.-bound flight.
Fish is a psychology student at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., said Roger Clow, the college’s director of communications. He declined to answer other questions about Fish, citing privacy concerns.
Th dynamite scare was one of seven incidents that disrupted U.S. flights on Friday. Others included:
- An American Airlines flight from England to Chicago was forced to land in Bangor, Maine, after federal officials "learned of a reported threat," FBI spokeswoman Gail Marcinkiewicz said. Some people on board said a fellow passenger was handcuffed and placed in a police car as they were leaving the jetliner.
Marcinkiewicz said no one was arrested but declined to say if anyone from the flight out of Manchester was in custody.
- A US Airways jet was diverted to Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport after a federal air marshal subdued a disruptive passenger who had pushed a flight attendant, the FBI said.
The passenger was undergoing a mental evaluation, and authorities had yet to determine what criminal charges he might face. The twin-engine jet returned to flight three hours later on its trip from Phoenix to Charlotte, N.C.
- A Continental Airlines flight from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Bakersfield, Calif., was held in El Paso, one of its scheduled stops, after the crew discovered a missing panel in the lavatory, authorities said. Passengers were being screened and interviewed, Amy von Walter of the Transportation Security Administration said.
- A utility knife was found on a vacant passenger seat of a US Airways flight that had traveled from Philadelphia to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, state police said.
No arrests were made and there were no threats involved, said Master Sgt. J. Paul Vance, state police spokesman. He said it was unknown Friday whether a worker inadvertently left the knife on the plane or a passenger brought it on.
- An Aer Lingus flight from New York to Dublin was evacuated Friday morning during a scheduled stopover in western Ireland following a bomb threat that turned out to be unfounded, officials said.
- A United Airlines flight out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport was delayed because a small boy said something inappropriate, according to a government official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. "He didn't want to fly," the official said.
The Manchester-to-Chicago flight, American Airlines Flight 55, was diverted to Bangor for security reasons, Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Arlene Murray said.
The plane landed on a remote taxiway and passengers were taken by bus to a holding area, said airport manager Rebecca Hupp. State police provided bomb squad dogs, and local police provided additional assistance.
"The TSA learned of a reported threat to the aircraft while it was en route," TSA spokeswoman Andrea McCauley said, declining to give further details. FBI agents were interviewing passengers and crew, she added.
Marcinkiewicz, of the FBI, declined to elaborate on the source of the threat, or to say whether officials believed it to be legitimate.
Passengers said they had not seen any disruptions during the flight. Amy Chignell of Redditch, England, said she sat next to the man who appeared to be the subject of concern and did not see him do anything out of the ordinary, although he went to the restroom a few times.
Tom Roseberry of Seattle said passengers were told they were landing in Maine because a member of the crew was ill. But he said passengers began to suspect something else was going on when they saw a fighter jet zoom by.
NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.