Sky-high mayhem leaves brawlers stranded and puts Airtours in a rage High dudgeon after mid-air brawl leads to forced landing

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The Independent Online
TWELVE holidaymakers from Britain and Ireland were stranded in the United States last night after their involvement in an alleged "air rage" incident forced the emergency landing of their aircraft en route from Gatwick to Jamaica.

The passengers were ejected, without their luggage, and facing a bill for the aircraft's diversion, at Norfolk international airport in Virginia after Airtours refused to carry them any further.

The latest trouble illustrates a growing hazard for today's air traveller. In another recent incident, a drunken passenger went berserk on board a packed jet cruising at 35,000ft, attacked the stewardesses and threatening to kick open one of the aeroplane windows. An unprecedented aviation disaster was just seconds away.

"Air rage" is now a more common, or at least a more reported, event. With drinks widely available, and long-haul flights cheaper than ever, there is growing concern about what is happening in the air.

Airlines in Britain have reported a 400 per cent increase in attacks in the past three years. The Civil Aviation Authority said yesterday that there were 108 incidents involving disruptive passengers in 1997. Figures compiled by the police show that two "medium-sized" UK airlines recorded 1,190 incidents between them.

In the latest episode, reported yesterday, 12 passengers were thrown off an Airtours Boeing 767 heading for the Caribbean amid claims of a mass mid-air brawl. The pilot was forced to make an unscheduled stop at a US airport.

According to the airline, some of the six men and six women on their "dream holiday" were drunk and a fight broke out.

The passengers disagree. Irish-born Miles Connor, 35, who was one of the people ejected from the Jamaican-bound flight, said they had simply been enjoying an "old-fashioned Irish sing-song" when another passenger threw a drink over him. "There wasn't even a fight. No punches were thrown, just a few words were exchanged - but they threw all 12 of us off... the biggest injustice is that the other man, who threw the drink, was allowed to carry on on the flight."

Another of the stranded party said: "They wanted $1,800 (pounds 1,090) each to fly us home, and we can't afford that. We are frightened to move because we have run out of money. We haven't had any sleep, we haven't had a wash, and we can't change our clothes because our luggage went on to Montego Bay."

Captain David Parsons, the flight operations director for Airtours, said: "The supervisor tried to calm the situation, with the normal calming techniques we teach our crews, but it didn't work. She went to the captain and said, 'It's getting quite frightening, can you divert', and he did just that," he said.

Airtours banned the party for life from its aircraft and was threatening legal action to try to recover some of the pounds 15,000 to pounds 20,000 the diversion cost. Airtours said it had also asked police at Gatwick to investigate. Under the Air Navigation Order, offences allegedly committed in the air aboard a British-registered aircraft fall within the jurisdiction of British police.

The 12 have now abandoned their holiday - but they have also been refused seats on two flights out of the US, according to police at Norfolk airport.

Another passenger, Francis Coyle, said the trouble started when a man passed a remark about another man's wife and a drink was thrown. "There were no punches. There was shouting and a drink was thrown. But there was no fighting," he said.

"Everybody was a bit high-spirited. They had quite a few drinks. They were tipsy, but not really drunk. I got up and told them to sit down and they did. About half-an-hour later, we were told the plane was going to be diverted. It was nothing to do with the rest of us. I am going to take legal action over this. I am stuck here in Virginia. My wife is in tears. We have not done anything."

Yesterday airlines and police chiefs held the first of a series of meetings set up by the Government in November after a passenger slashed an air stewardess with a vodka bottle on an Airtours flight to Malaga.

John Reid, the Transport minister, said he was pressing other countries to follow the UK and bring in laws allowing them to take action against offenders on board foreign-owned aircraft. He said airlines and police forces had agreed to collect data on "air rage" incidents.

The airline industry called on the Government to bring in tougher sentences for people who put fellow passengers in danger. But it backed away from calling for a ban on the sale of alcohol on board, saying this would hit the "99.9 per cent" of passengers who caused no trouble.

Air Rage: A Year of Trouble in the Skies

Air rage incidents in the past year have included:

FEBRUARY1998: Three British Airways stewardesses attacked by model Lorna Dow, 30, from Manchester, after she found a lavatory engaged on a flight to New York. She had been drinking champagne and cannabis tea. US police held her for three days.

APRIL 1998: Businessman John Henson, 33, fined pounds 6,700 after he threatened to kill the pilot and butt a passenger. He smashed a seat and indecently assaulted a stewardess on a BA flight from Gatwick to Orlando. The aircraft was forced to divert to Boston amid safety fears.

OCTOBER 1998: Steven Handy banned for life from planes, trains and ferries after he attacked Airtours stewardess Fiona Weir when drunk on a flight from Gatwick airport to Malaga. The stewardess needed 40 stitches in her head and arm and carries the scars of the attack.

NOVEMBER 1998: Former Stone Roses star Ian Brown jailed after losing appeal against a four-month sentence for threatening to chop off the hands of an air stewardess. The judge said he wanted to send a strong message to others who indulged in "loutish behaviour" while airborne.

JANUARY 1999: Seven staff and passengers needed to overpower and handcuff 36-year-old man on BA flight from Johannesburg after he allegedly assaulted four crew members just one hour into the flight to Heathrow.

JANUARY 1999: BA forced to divert Bangkok-bound Boeing 747 to Delhi after Lee Thresher punches out aircraft inner window and bites woman's headphones in half. He had taken a mixture of drink and pills.