Police isolated and surrounded the Saudia flight after it landed on Tuesday afternoon just after one of its pilots issued a distress signal indicating a hijack was underway, the Philippine aviation authority said in a statement.
Hundreds of passengers aboard the Boeing 777 flight from the Red Sea city of Jeddah were forced to remain on the plane for more than two hours, but were allowed to disembark about 5:00pm (0900 GMT) after it was confirmed there was no threat.
Soon after the distress signal was activated, authorities at Manila control tower obtained a verbal confirmation from the pilot that he had triggered it although he did not say why at the time, Manila airport aviation security chief Mao Aplasca told reporters.
“It was only after the plane was parked for some time that he said it was a false alarm,” Aplasca added.
In Saudi Arabia, an airline spokesman also told AFP there was no security threat. “False alarm for hijack for Flight 872,” the spokesman said.
JUST IN: Saudia Airlines flight SVA 872 from Jeddah landed at 3PM at NAIA and was placed in total isolation at secluded portion of runway 06 pic.twitter.com/lpwVRsgqRS
— ABS-CBN News (@ABSCBNNews) September 20, 2016
The Philippines’ aviation authority said in a statement the distress signal pressed by the pilot alerted authorities “that a hijacking incident is on progress on board”.
“Immediately the flight was given priority landing by airport authorities… and was directed to park on the remote bay and isolated for security procedures,” the statement said.
“Apparently the pilot committed an error activating the 7500 squawking signal,” the statement said, referring to the hijack alarm.
It said an investigation would still be needed to confirm why the distress signal was pressed. “Appropriate penalties and sanctions will be imposed on the erring pilot if the result is indeed a human error,” it said.
There were 410 passengers on board plus four pilots and 17 crew members, airport general manager Ed Monreal told reporters. Many of them were returning from the annual Islamic pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
One of the passengers, Aida Majud, said they were not told why they were being kept on the plane. “When we saw the armed men we thought, what’s the problem? We wanted to know what was happening,” Majud told ABS-CBN television network.
But she said the atmosphere was calm, with some speculating President Rodrigo Duterte had come to the airport to welcome the pilgrims home and that the armed men surrounding the plane were his security personnel.
Majud said passengers had to undergo body checks after getting off the plane to ensure no one was carrying weapons.
Airport officials said there were no major disruptions to traffic, with planes continuing to land and take off, because the Saudia aircraft had been kept at an isolated area.