Snake on a Plane

Continental Airlines had a cold-blooded killer on board but refused law enforcement's pleas to land

Palombo was worried about Grewal's exit-row window seat, though each of the aviation experts contacted by New Times said that wouldn't have been a safety issue in itself because cabin pressurization makes opening an emergency door during flight virtually impossible.

The sergeant also had contacted ACTIC for assistance.

Formed after the September 11 attacks and based in north Phoenix, the multiagency task force includes FBI personnel and is designed to be a one-stop shop for police in circumstances involving terror suspects and criminals.

Longtime pilot Rusty Aimer says it was "outrageous" that Flight 82 didn’t turn around.
Longtime pilot Rusty Aimer says it was "outrageous" that Flight 82 didn’t turn around.
Aviation expert Patrick Smith: "I suspect that most captains would have opted to divert."
Aviation expert Patrick Smith: "I suspect that most captains would have opted to divert."

"According to our protocol, ACTIC is our liaison with the FBI and other agencies, and they responded to us immediately," Palombo says. "Within minutes, I learned from ACTIC that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were going to play ball with us, that they would take our guy into custody if the plane landed up there."

But another hitch soon arose.

The ACTIC liaison told Palombo he had spoken to someone at Continental, and that airline brass were wondering who was going to pay for refueling Flight 82 if the pilot dumped thousands of gallons of fuel to ensure a safe landing.

"I was, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" the sergeant says. "He said he wasn't . . . I estimated that it might be 10 or 15 grand, something like that."

Palombo told the liaison he couldn't authorize that size of an expenditure, but, within minutes, he got the go-ahead from Assistant Police Chief Kevin Robinson.

"By now, the FBI, TSA and the FAA had become involved, and everyone was getting frustrated," Palombo says. "At this point, I'm in the mode of, `Just land the freaking plane! We promise to pay for it, okay?'"

All but one of the six aviation-safety experts contacted by New Times says Continental erred at this point.

Ross "Rusty" Aimer, chief executive officer of Aviation Experts, a San Clemente, California, consulting firm says, "If you have a fugitive killer on your airplane and law enforcement presents a direct case for landing that plane, then it's outrageous that you don't come back to Newark or land in one of the many other airports along the way. All I can think of is maybe the pilot was concerned that if he or she started turning back, the killer would go berserk and start killing people. But I really don't buy that."

Aimer retired from United Airlines in 2004 as an international 767 pilot and also flew for Continental during a distinguished 40-year career.

"The FBI had the authority to order a pilot to land [within U.S. airspace]," he says. "I'm surprised they didn't do that. I also don't understand why the FBI or another authority didn't pick up the phone and talk to that captain. They've done that with me, with a phone patch through air-traffic control — and even over the water."

But FBI Special Agent Deb McCarley claims her agency wasn't directly involved in the Grewal case until hours later, when Flight 82 was going to land in New Delhi.

"I have been advised that the FBI itself did not make any request of Continental Airlines to turn around that plane," spokeswoman McCarley says, adding that Phoenix police may have made their initial request through a U.S. Department of Justice field office "that wouldn't have had the authority to order the immediate landing of a trans-Atlantic flight."

Palombo responds drolly, "The FBI was involved. Actually, all of us [in law enforcement], including the FBI, were working on the same page, which was to get our suspect into police custody as soon as we could."

But Todd Curtis, the Seattle author of Understanding Aviation Safety Data and founder of the Web site, says it wasn't a certainty that Flight 82 would return to Newark or divert to another airport just because police wanted it to.

"Everything is trumped by the captain's prerogative," says Curtis, an airplane-safety analyst who worked at Boeing for almost a decade and has a doctorate in aviation risk assessment. "The pilot is ultimately responsible for the safety of the passengers and the plane, and even if ordered, can do what he or she thinks is right. This guy [Grewal] didn't seem to be a direct threat by showing any kind of imbalance on board that might cause trouble. Also, Continental had an obligation to its 300 or 400 passengers on board to land or not to land early, and this was a call it had to make. And, yes, financial considerations can come into play, though safety always comes first."

Patrick Smith, an aviation expert who has written extensively on matters of air safety and security, agrees with Curtis that the captain had final authority about whether to divert a plane from its course.

But Smith adds, "I suspect that most captains, aware that one of his charges was presumably so dangerous, would have opted to divert."

As for the cost of landing Flight 82 prematurely, it almost certainly would have been far more than the $10,000 or $15,000 that Sergeant Palombo had estimated.

"Costs can vary considerably," says Smith, "The fuel costs [dumping, subsequent refueling, plus the fuel used for the diversion arrival and departure] are only part of it, though certainly the largest part. You would probably have to replace all or most of the crew due to duty time constraints, the effects of which would trickle through the carrier's scheduling matrix.

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It is outrageous that Continental Airlines allowed this murderous felon to get away with his crime. I also fail to understand one of the previous comments suggesting this was a "crime of passion." This was a premeditated, calculated, bloody, brutal act of domestic violence vengeance. Given this man's obvious plot to fly to Phoenix and escape to India, I have no idea how any person with any common sense could conclude that this was a "crime of passion".

True, the man was arrested on his arrival in India. Did anyone note that this differed from law enforcement's plan for him, which was to return him to the US before he legally entered India through customs? Guess they didn't read carefully enough. Instead of swiftly returning him here for trial, he is now bogged down in the Indian court system where the case will languish for years with no guarantee that he will ever be returned. This is a perversion of justice, and Continental Airlines is responsible for it.


hey this is not imaginary story ok. anyone knows wat happened after this? don't speak just for time pass. and even news paper also didn't write wat happened after this? this is really very bad. i'm pleasing, please don't write just for money. media is very powerful so help us to do something good. after flight landing here police arrested him but he didn't take back from new delhi to U.S court and he didn't punished. i'm the person from navneet sister relation. if the flight would landed there, he might be got into jail and he would get severe punishment but now the main case is not murder? how to take him back from india to U.S? and i wanted to know wat he is doing now? if the media is really taking care about people life then they should write here, after that news (don't say story) what is happening now in this case?. bye gopi

joe ryan
joe ryan

It's obvious that nobody at the Times spoke to, or should I say, listened to the people at the airline. Continental made arrangements for the guy to be picked up when they arrived in india. There was probably a marshal on the flight due to the part of the world that flight goes york, boston, london etc.I suggest the Times do a little more research before slamming the airline. This would have been a very expensive more for the airline to turn around. Think about the other 299 passengers who would have been put out because of this. Continental would most likely have had to cancel the flight when it returned because of crew duty times. That passenger went through the screening process at the airport and got through ok so it appears that he was no harm to anyone else. He was just running. it's pointless to think this guy would draw attention to himself in an environment that is already full of law enforcement of various types.joe

Chad Vanegas
Chad Vanegas

I like stories that let me make up my own mind about a topic, though this one was a tough call. I can see both points of view on it, though I think if the cops really can prove something, then the airlines or whoever should go for it. Very interesting story!

Mark Nelson
Mark Nelson

Ah, the arrogance of Law Enforcement agents. Do exactly what they say, when they say to do it, no questions or arguements allowed, no matter the cost to taxpayers and others. The exact same arrogance that is used to shut down vital freeways and transportation corridors used by hundreds of thousands of people for half a day or more while lethal accidents or murders are slowly investigated. Grewal didn't commit a cold-blooded murder, but instead a hot blooded crime of passion. No evidence was presented in the story that Grewal was a substantial or immediate threat to other passengers. No evidence of a prior history of violence. There was no way he could escape while in flight. Therefore, there was no significant reason why law enforcement couldn't wait for him to be arrested at the plane's next scheduled stop and extradited back to Phoenix, just like hundreds of other suspects are every year. Instead, law enforcement demanded a flashy turnaround that would have greatly inconvenienced hundreds of passengers and cost over a hundred thousand dollars of probably unrecoverable expenses for Continental. Good going, Continental! Thanks for having the commonsense to know that security concerns can be weighed against other factors, instead of just assuming the worst. Thanks for resisting the pressure to treat all passengers like cattle that can be herded around at the whim of government officials.


Much of this article makes no sense. For one thing, the murder suspect was arrested when the plane finished its flight and landed safely, just like any reasonable person would expect. Surely you called a number of "aviation experts" before reaching someone who thought turning around a plane full of fuel and landing it in New York with a suspected killer on board was a good idea.

If someone thinks that an airplane door can be opened in flight, and that flights from New York to Delhi get anywhere near Germany, it's silly to take their opinions on aviation safety seriously.

I'll guess that Continental recently got a call from the New Times' sales staff and said no to advertising with you?

Alexander F.
Alexander F.

Scary story. What were these people (Continental) thinking?

Alex Franklin

T. O'Sullivan
T. O'Sullivan

Continental Airlines should be held accountable for their lack of cooperationwith Law Enforcement Agencies, who in detail, described the dangers to other passengers on the same flight with a Non-U.S. citizen fleeing after committing a horrific torture/murder.

Every U.S. citizen should NOT fly Continental Airlines. If Continental's loyalty is to their almighty profits (their comments to Law Enforcemnt Agencies"Do you know how much it would cost in fuel to turn the plane around") and/orto criminals just because they are a paid customer then so be it. The insane, the mentally ill, terrorist and murderers can book flights on Continental Airlines - I have sent this story to thousands of e-mail receipents and would hope they pass this story along also.

Continental's priorities are with their 'costs' not to their passengers safety.

I will NEVER book another flight - in the U.S. or abroad with Continental Airlines.


T. O'Sullivan

Jason Joyner
Jason Joyner

The Phoenix P.D. officer I'm sure is a fine officer and I do see his point. But if the plane would to turn around it would send the wrong signal to the suspect. He might panic, take hostages or worse, try to bring down the plane. By landing without anything out of the norm the suspect was taken into custody with no more issues.

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