Four people removed Tuesday morning from a Chicago-bound Spirit Airlines flight at BWI Marshall Airport amid concerns about a potential threat were released without charges after being questioned, Maryland Transportation Authority police said.
A female passenger told the flight crew she saw suspicious activity, which turned out to be someone watching a news report on a smartphone, said Sgt. Jonathan Green, a spokesman for the authority's police department, which patrols the airport.
"Everything added up to create a situation where she felt concerned," Green said of the witness. "Everything was done in the interest of safety."
Spirit Flight 969 was taxiing before takeoff when the passenger alerted a flight attendant, Spirit Airlines said.
"Out of an abundance of caution, the plane returned to the gate," the airline said.
Officers removed three men and a woman from the flight, Green said. He said those passengers included a married couple, who were traveling with a family member, and a male passenger sitting near them.
Green declined to identify the people removed, including whether they were of Middle Eastern descent, as several other passengers described them.
Suzanne Kennedy, a reporter for ABC7 in Washington who was aboard the plane, tweeted that they "[a]ppeared to be in [their] early 30s and of Middle Eastern descent."
Jenna Farella, 26, who was flying home to Chicago after visiting her boyfriend in West Virginia, agreed with that description. She said she was sitting across the aisle from them, in row 15C. After the plane pulled away from the gate, Farella said, a woman behind her got up and walked with a child to the back. Farella thought the child needed to use the restroom.
Moments later, the pilot told passengers over the intercom that the plane was returning to the gate.
"We get back, and two police officers come onto the plane," Farella said. The officers asked three men and a woman to follow them off the plane, she said. All of the passengers were evacuated later so the plane could be searched, Farella said.
Transportation Security Administration rescreened all of the baggage on the flight, including the bags of the four passengers who were pulled off, said TSA spokesman Mike England. "No threat was found," he said.
After three hours, the flight was cleared to depart, he said. It arrived in Chicago in late morning.
When passengers reboarded, an officer told them there had been a threat but did not elaborate, Farella said. The people who had been sitting across the aisle from her did not reboard, she said.
"It was all kind of very odd," she said. "It crossed my mind that I should get on another flight or take a Greyhound bus. It was very uncomfortable."
Anthony C. Roman, a former corporate pilot who is now a counterterrorism analyst and CEO of Roman & Associates, said it is difficult to second-guess security measures.
"In this time of heightened awareness and security concerns in the wake of the Paris attacks, in which ISIS has showed incredible ability and sophistication, the flying public is much more aware, much more involved than they have been in the past," he said.
The aviation industry, airlines and captains all have security protocols "that are absolute," Roman said. When a passenger believes he or she has seen something suspicious and reports it, officials take it seriously, he said.
Roman acknowledged that racial profiling can take place, especially after terrorist attacks. Aviation security has long faced a tug of war between safety and privacy, he said.
"Human nature being what it is, there's always a risk" of such profiling, he said.