A Transport Canada report said United Flight 940 was diverted to Toronto late Monday and landed safely at Pearson International Airport. In a twist reminiscent of the plot of the 1964 Glenn Ford movie 'Fate Is the Hunter', the coffee spill caused distress signals to go out, including code 7500, which means hijacking or unlawful interference.
The report says Canada's defense department was notified, but that with the help of United dispatch staff the flight crew confirmed it to be a communication issue and not a hijacking.
The report on Transport Canada's website said the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration reported that United's corporate office had indicated that the pilot "had inadvertently squawked a 7500 code after spilling coffee on the aircraft's radio equipment, which interfered with the communications equipment."
"The flight crew had advised that they had communication problems and subsequently reported that they had some navigation problems as well and from there the pilot in the command diverted the flight onto Toronto," Maryse Durette, a Transport Canada spokeswoman, said Wednesday.
United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson acknowledged Wednesday that one of three cockpit crew members caused the mishap by spilling a drink.
"It was a beverage. During light turbulence one of the crew members beverages spilled which then caused issues with the airplanes communications equipment," Johnson said.
Johnson said the crew was in contact with air traffic control throughout. He said that the pilot elected to divert the flight rather than cross the Atlantic Ocean while experiencing a communications problem.
The Boeing 777 was carrying 241 passengers and 14 crew members. Johnson said United flew them back to Chicago on another plane and put them up in hotel rooms overnight. They flew to Germany on Tuesday.