Airline passenger arrested over false coronavirus claim says he did it for 'publicity'

An airline passenger who falsely claimed he had the coronavirus aboard a WestJet flight — and got arrested for it — now feels his prank was “probably not the best thing to do.”

James Potok, a 28-year-old aspiring musician from Ontario, Canada, says he made the false claim while trying to film a viral video for “publicity” aboard the flight, which was ultimately forced to divert back to the Toronto Pearson International Airport on Monday.

The plane was bound for Montego Bay, Jamaica. Reports indicate it had already reached airspace over Florida by the time it was forced to divert back to Canada.

Potok, who also goes by Potok Philippe, told Toronto’s City News that he got out of his seat about “midway through the flight” with the intention of filming a viral video for Instagram.

“I looked around, I said, ‘Can I get everybody’s attention? Please, can I have all your attention?’ And then I followed that by saying, I believe I [said] word for word, ‘I just came back from Hunan province, the capital of the coronavirus… I’m not feeling too well’ … That was exactly what I said.”

Potok — who presumably was unaware that the coronavirus was first detected in Hubei, and not Hunan — said the crew soon quarantined him at the back of the plane. “Once I saw we were flying back to Canada, I kinda, you know, I kinda second-guessed what I did was the right thing to do or not.”

He added that he was “not trying to scare anybody,” but then attempted to defend himself, saying he never actually said he had the coronavirus. He also questioned the crew’s decision to turn the plane around and go back to Canada, rather than let a plane filled with people — who did not know they were not in danger of contracting the coronavirus — continue on their journey to Jamaica.

Nevertheless, Potok began his interview with City News by saying, “It was good for publicity. Yeah, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

In an interview with Canada’s Global News, he added that “any publicity for myself is good publicity.”

Footage from inside the plane, obtained by CityNews, also shows Potok, wearing a mask and gloves, trying to defend his comment as he was escorted away from other passengers on the plane.

Following the flight, WestJet shared a statement calling Potok an “unruly guest” who made “unfounded claims” on the plane.

“We sincerely apologize to the 243 guests who were affected by this unfortunate situation,” the airline wrote in a statement shared with Fox News earlier this week. “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.”

Upon landing, the flight was met by both medical personnel and law enforcement officials. Potok was arrested and charged with mischief.

He’s due in court in March, the CBC reported.

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