Wellington: It was enough to spark a major security scare: A man posing as a pilot tried to gain access to a restricted part of an international airport and then escaped when questioned.
But it turns out the incident at New Zealand`s Auckland Airport was an elaborate television stunt gone awry. And now three show producers are facing charges and the possibility, if convicted, of jail time.
The worry began Saturday when police say a man dressed in a replica pilot`s uniform, complete with epaulets on his shoulders and silver wings on his cap, tried to gain access to a secure part of the airport before being challenged by ground staff. The man left the airport and escaped in a black Toyota van.
Police issued alerts for the man, complete with grainy security footage, saying the effort he`d gone to in trying to deceive staff and gain access was of "significant concern."
The incident seemed reminiscent of the 2002 movie "Catch Me If You Can," which recounts the true story of a young con artist who successfully poses as an airline pilot before being caught by the FBI.
Then the story took a turn. Police announced Monday they`d charged three unlikely suspects — a company director, a film producer and a broadcaster. The Auckland men are aged between 26 and 33.
Local television station TV3 then put out its own statement: The men all work on a comedy show called "Wanna-Ben." The premise of the show is that an unemployed man named Ben tries to find exciting work, like becoming a rock star or a fashion icon, and meets famous people along the way. The show is produced by an independent company, Yoink Productions.
"I`m so sorry for all the trouble this has caused," said Ben Boyce, the face of the show, in the statement. "We did not intend to breach security or cause any worry or concern. This was an attempt at humor which we fully accept was misplaced."
The incident, which occurred as New Zealand hosts an estimated 100,000 visitors for the Rugby World Cup, was quickly condemned at the highest levels.
"Look, I don`t know all of the details," said New Zealand`s Prime Minister John Key at a news conference. "But if it`s a stunt, then I think it`s irresponsible from a bunch of clowns who should know better."
Asked if he was concerned the man wasn`t apprehended at the airport, Key said his understanding is that security was effective because the man was denied access to the secure area.
The police were not amused, either.
"Attempted breaches of airport security are taken very seriously," said police detective superintendent Andy Lovelock in a statement.
Lovelock said that, if convicted, the men face up to one year in jail or a fine of 10,000 New Zealand dollars ($8,300).
The television station said it was unaware of the details of the shoot beforehand and that it "would never encourage or condone any illegal activity." However, it stopped short of saying it would can the show, opting instead to monitor "the progress of this matter through the courts."
Ben Boyce signed off with this message: "I cannot say how sorry we all are."