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Pilot stuck in lavatory sparks security scare

Air traffic controllers in New York feared they might have a hijacking on their hands on Wednesday night, after the pilot on a flight from North Carolina failed to return from the restroom. As NBC's Tom Costello reports, the pilot was stuck inside the lavatory.

It sounds like a plot from a situation comedy: a pilot gets trapped in a lavatory, a well-meaning passenger with a foreign accent tries to assist, an untrusting co-pilot is unconvinced behind the cockpit door …

But this scenario wasn’t imagined by any screenwriter.  The situation played out onboard Delta Flight 6132 between Asheville, N.C. and New York.

Only three people -- the captain, a co-pilot and a flight attendant -- were staffing the flight operated by Chautauqua Airlines, said Peter Kowalchuk, a spokesperson for the carrier.

"After using the lavatory, when he tried to leave to return to the flight deck, the captain realized that the lavatory door latch was broken and he was unable to open the door," Kowalchuk said in a statement.

A passenger heard the pounding and approached to assist. The pilot urged the passenger to alert the cockpit crew of the situation.

The first officer, in the cockpit with the flight attendant (adhering to security regulations), was skeptical.

“The captain has disappeared to the back and I have someone with a thick foreign accent trying to access the cockpit right now and I have to deal with the situation,” the co-pilot radioed to air traffic control. “I’m not about to let him in.”

“You guys ought to declare an emergency and just get on the ground,” a controller told the co-pilot.

Later, according to the airline, "the flight attendant checked the status of the passenger cabin and saw nothing of concern." She left the cockpit -- "acceptable to ensure the ability to safely land the aircraft," Kowalchuk said -- and opened the jammed lavatory door.

"There was no threat or danger at any time during the incident," Kowalchuk said.

“Negative,” the captain responded when asked by air-traffic control of a threat. “The captain, myself, went back to the lavatory and the door latch broke and I had to fight my way out of it with my body to get the door open.”

The pilot landed the plane safely. The FBI and Port Authority police were waiting for the jet when it landed.

Chautauqua Airlines is owned by Republic Airways Holdings.

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Joe Myxter has been running msnbc.com's Travel section since 2006. Follow him on Twitter.