Passengers set to sue over airline `riot'

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The Independent Online
An airline which turned all 187 passengers off a plane for alleged riotous behaviour was last night facing the prospect of legal action from 150 of them, who were demanding compensation and an apology.

Police had to be called to the Sabre Airlines plane after a near riot erupted when the flight was delayed and they were left to wait in stifling heat on the runway on Sunday.

According to the airline, many of those on board - a mixture of Italian and British holidaymakers - were hurling abuse at the crew and shouting at other passengers. The pilot decided it was too dangerous to take off and everyone was made to disembark. A 37-year-old man was arrested and formally cautioned for disorderly behaviour, Sussex police said.

Keith Newnham, managing director of the British charter flight operator, which runs two aircraft, said: "It became clear to our captain that to take off with such unruly people on board would have put all in danger. The situation became so serious that the police had to escort the crew from the aircraft to protect them from some of these people."

He added that the passengers on Flight SBE 140 would be flown to Sicily late last night, something which Sabre was not obliged to do.

However, one passenger disputed the airline's version of events, saying 150 of those on the flight had signed a petition criticising Sabre and could take legal action for compensation.

Shafic Sacoor, 31, of west London, said: "Sabre have completely exaggerated what actually happened and we want compensation and an apology."

The marketing manager said passengers boarded the flight nearly three hours after its scheduled 7.25am take-off time - only to be told they would be going only to Palermo and not the final destination of Catania.

He said: "There was a bit of a commotion, but no suggestion of violence. People were just annoyed they had been told so late the plane would not be flying to its intended destination."

Mr Sacoor, said the passengers were then taken back to the boarding lounge where they were told to wait for four hours for an airline representative - who never arrived. "These were not criminals or hijackers, they were just ordinary people going home or on holiday who complained at the way they were treated by Sabre."

He said they had not been offered compensation, despite being unable to fly out until midnight, losing two nights' pre- paid hotel accommodation and having to travel to and from Gatwick a second time.

A spokesman for Sabre said the initial delay was caused by a technical fault which involved the replacement of a hydraulic pump. The airline then decided to avoid further delay by flying directly to Palermo and transferring the Catania-bound passengers by coach for the additional 75-mile journey.

The airline had made the decision not to fly to Catania to ensure the crew kept within its legal flying hours and to avoid further delays while a new crew was brought in.