Mohamed Fikry traverses the globe, buying industrial food-processing equipment. In the process, he’s become an American Airlines executive platinum club member, closing in on nearly 5 million miles traveled.
Last July, American Flight 136 from Los Angeles International Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport began as just another trip for Fikry.
The 53-year-old Pasadena resident boarded the plane and changed from business attire to a sweat suit in one of the lavatories before settling into Seat 13J at the back of business class.
There, he ate a few bites of a Bristol Farms ham sandwich and cookies, took a sleeping pill and washed it down with two glasses of wine.
Before dozing off, he spoke briefly with a flight attendant.
“I saw you on the tram before,” she told Fikry.
“It’s possible,” he replied, thinking the two might have crossed paths. He briefly wondered what she meant by the “tram.” He routinely rides shuttle buses to and from parking garages, but “tram” is a word usually applied to employee buses.
A few minutes later, when the woman sitting next to him went to the restroom, the attendant returned and took the empty seat.
Could she trouble him for one of his business cards? “Sure,” he said. The plane took off as scheduled. Minutes later, he was asleep.
Fikry awoke to the Boeing 777 descending. His watch read 11 p.m., just 4 1/2 hours into the flight.
“You couldn’t make it to London on the Concorde in that time,” he recalled thinking.
The woman next to him said they were making an emergency landing because the plane was low on fuel.
But on the ground, there was no sign of emergency personnel or equipment to greet a stricken plane.
The pilot announced to the more than 200 passengers that they were at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and to stay in their seats because of an unspecified emergency.
A dozen law enforcement officers boarded the plane. They stopped at Fikry’s seat.
“Get all of your belongings, we are unloading your luggage, get off the plane,” one said.
“What would you say to the officers?” Fikry said later. “Of course, you are going to say yes.”
What happened next would become a lead story on TV newscasts around the country.
The reports said the flight had been diverted because a passenger was able to circumvent security screening in Los Angeles.
The incident came days after an intelligence report had warned that Al Qaeda had reconstituted and represented as great a danger to the United States as any since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Hours after Fikry was detained in New York, U.S. Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff went on the “Today” show to talk about the case, saying a man was in custody after he boarded a plane posing as an American Airlines employee.
The “person of interest” was Fikry.