Airtours 12 fly home in sober mood

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THE PARTY of British and Irish holidaymakers stranded at an American airport after a rowdy onboard clash on Sunday was on its way home last night to an uncertain welcome.

Airtours International, its British tour company, said that it was considering its legal position. The 12 holidaymakers were expected to be greeted by airport police on their arrival in London.

On Sunday night, the pilot of their Jamaica-bound flight from Gatwick had diverted the aircraft to Norfolk airport in Virginia after an alcohol- fuelled episode high over the Atlantic.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and police in the United States said that they would not be pressing charges.

Clad in "I Love Virginia" T-shirts, the party yesterday shook hands with the airport police at Norfolk, where they said they had been well treated. "The police have been very helpful," said Angela Driscoll, one of the party. "The FBI was even helpful."

Several had a few farewell drinks in the airport lounge before heading off to catch a flight for Detroit and then London. They said they had struggled to pay for the flights, but the airline that carried them reportedly cut the fare to about pounds 200.

The circumstances surrounding the "air rage' incident remain unclear. Ms Driscoll said she had been asleep when the incident took place. "Some of us had had a few drinks. They were singing, but low," she said. "There was a coloured bloke. He said, 'Shut your women up, shut you lady up'. Then Miles [Connor] said, 'There's no need to be aggressive, they're only enjoying themselves'."

The man then threw a glass of beer at Mr Connor, she said, and another member of the party got up "to calm the situation down" but the other man threatened them. "There was no punches, no fighting, just a little bit of a dispute."

That "little bit of a dispute" left the group stranded for two days while they refused to pay for flights back to London. Airtours International said it had no remaining responsibility.

The group members were put up at the local Hilton for the night by the British breakfast-time television broadcaster GMTV, Ms Driscoll said, and fed by the airport authorities.

For most of the time, they sat hunched in the airport smoking lounge surrounded by a discreet circle of British journalists. By yesterday afternoon, they looked bedraggled and subdued. They had that vulnerable look of people who have spent two days in an airport in their holiday clothes.