Instagrammer apologises for coronavirus plane prank
Washington - A flight headed to Jamaica on Monday was rerouted back to Toronto after a man falsely claimed that he had recently visited China, where the recent coronavirus outbreak originated.
James Potok, a 28-year-old aspiring rapper from Vaughan, Ontario, stood up on a WestJet flight from Toronto to Montego Bay and told passengers he had just returned from Hunan Province, about 300 miles from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the new coronavirus strain.
The flight, which had 243 passengers aboard, diverted back to Toronto about two hours after taking off. When the plane landed, Potok was escorted off, wearing a blue face mask and disposable gloves.
"That was a good one," one passenger said as Potok deplaned. "We could have been in the sun."
Potok, whose stage name is Potok Philippe, filmed himself making the announcement in hopes of getting publicity online. His mobile phone, on which his video of the offending announcement is saved, is being held by police.
"It's something that is a hot topic right now. Everybody is talking about coronavirus," Potok told The Washington Post when asked why he did it.
The rapper claims he warned the people sitting in his row that he was going to make "somewhat of a statement" before he carried out the stunt. Potok says he told passengers shortly after that it was a joke.
Potok said that about 10 minutes later, flight attendants wearing masks and gloves came to move him away from other passengers. He was instructed to put on gloves and a mask as well.
Once quarantined, Potok said he realized he'd made a mistake and was sympathetic to the people that were on the flight who seemed to be getting "antsy" as they wondered what was going on.
"It seems as though my actions ruined the flight and vacation for almost 250 people," he says.
Local law enforcement and EMS personnel met the WestJet flight when it reached Toronto's Pearson International Airport. Potok was escorted off the plane and medically examined to check for symptoms of coronavirus, which has been confirmed in more than 24 000 cases and 492 deaths in China as of Wednesday morning. Potok, who has never been to China, did not have the virus.
"Out of an abundance of caution, our crew followed all protocols for infectious disease on board, including sequestering an individual who made an unfounded claim regarding Coronavirus," WestJet officials said in a statement. WestJet added a flight the following day to accommodate passengers who were affected by the publicity stunt.
The Peel (Ontario) Regional Police Airport Division Criminal Investigation Bureau charged Potok with "mischief and breach of recognizance."
"Think of all of the passengers that are affected by the plane turning around," said Peel regional police media relations officer Danny Marttini.
Potok is set to appear at the Ontario Court of Justice in Brampton in March. While being detained at the airport, Potok contacted lawyers, who advised him to "be quiet."
"It seems to be against their advising that I'm doing these interviews," Potok said.
Already facing legal issues due to a previous fraud charge that he declined to discuss, Potok said he's "absolutely" worried about going to prison for this offense.
"If I could do it again, I would not do it," he said. "I would take back what I had done in a heartbeat. It seems like hindsight is 20-20 always."
The rapper has been reposting fan support of his prank on social media.
"There's no such thing as bad publicity," Potok said in an Instagram Stories video posted on 4:24 a.m. on Wednesday. "Just look forward to new music and new music videos."Washington Post