In the most recent example of this expensive and potentially deadly practice, on January 17 two F-15s were scrambled to intercept an Alaska Airlines flight on its way to Seattle. Apparently someone called the FBI that day, anonymously, and named a particular passenger on board as a security threat. The fighters escorted the plane to Sea-Tac Airport, where FBI agents boarded the plane and detained the passenger without incident.
In fact, they may have had to wake him up to take him into custody, because according to the crew he had been sleeping for most of the flight.
Spokespeople for the various agencies involved confirmed that the call was the only reason for the massive armed response. There had been no "situation" or threatening behavior of any kind on the plane, and in fact "no unusual behavior" at all, according to an airline spokesperson. This could have been due to the suspect's persistent unconsciousness, but I'm just speculating.
Agents interrogated the man for about three hours while K-9 units checked the plane. Nothing was found and the FBI cleared him that same night, although as one agent put it, "he ended up having a very bad day." The FBI is now reportedly "very interested" in who made the call and why, a phrase that translated I think means they would like to arrest that person.
What bothers me about this is not so much that they interrogated the wrong person—that happens all the time, not that it's okay—but rather the fighter jets. I think most people probably understand this, but just to make it totally clear, if they send up fighters that is not because they are bringing the first-class passengers some more of those little hot towels. It is so they can be ready to SHOOT YOU DOWN if necessary. Now, I realize the odds that would ever happen, even accidentally, are very tiny. I still question whether it's wise to put fighters next to a passenger plane at the drop of a hat, or in this case because of an anonymous tip about a sleeping passenger. See also "F-16s Scrambled Due to Inappropriate Bathroom Use," Lowering the Bar (Sept. 21, 2011) (discussing three prior examples of this phenomenon, all stupid).
According to the Seattle Times report, though, interceptions like this are apparently much more common than I thought. Citing a NORAD spokesman, it says this has happened "thousands of times" since 9/11. In this press release NORAD says there have been "over fifteen hundred" since 9/11, most apparently involving planes that violated "temporary flight restriction" areas. Either way, while this is a small percentage of all flights, of course, it still seems like one hell of a lot of interceptions—especially since in every single case, it has been unnecessary, and is (as NORAD admits) "at great expense to the taxpayer."
I guess it's good practice for the fighter pilots, so there is that.