A group of 18 British and Irish tourists have been charged with running amok aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from London to the United States, attacking other passengers and hurling food at crew members. Seventeen have been ejected from the US, while one remains in custody.
The fracas, now under formal investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, broke out on flight NW45 on Monday evening from Gatwick airport to Los Angeles via Minneapolis, Minnesota.
All 18 passengers were detained when the aircraft landed in Minneapolis. Charges were filed by the airline against Michael Purcell, 25, who appeared in a Minneapolis court yesterday and is being held in custody without bail.
The other 17 were refused entry into the US. Four were sent straight back to London on Monday night; the remaining 13 were dispatched last night and were due to arrive on two separate flights into Gatwick this morning.
Characterising the flight as "challenging", a spokesman for the airline confirmed last night that the activities of the 18 - believed to be members of three families - reduced the flight to pandemonium. It eventually took the intervention of three American wrestlers who happened to be on board to bring the disturbance to an end.
The trouble reportedly began soon after take-off from Gatwick, when one male member of the group began chasing his wife around the cabin shouting abuse at her. His son apparently then tried to intervene.
Matters then went from bad to worse. "It got to the point where it looked as though a serious physical confrontation was about to develop," reported Doug Killian, a spokesman for Northwest Airlines, which is based in Minneapolis. "This was truly an unruly group."
Mr Killian said the 18 had boarded the aircraft with "pitchers of liquor" and then began demanding more alcohol from the flight attendants when their own supply had been exhausted. Turned down by the crew members, they apparently then deployed their children to steal bottles of drink from unguarded drinks trolleys in the galley.
All efforts by the crew, including the captain who had been forced to come into the cabin from the cockpit, to restore calm were to no avail. However, the wrestlers, in training for the Olympics, pinned down three of the most unruly men in the group and restrained them with plastic hand- cuffs that airlines regularly carry on board flights.
Immigration officials justified returning the passengers on the premise that they had been unable to prove that there were genuine tourists and not entering the US for other purposes.
"They claimed to be tourists," remarked a dubious Dean Hove, director of the district immigration and naturalisation office. Mr Purcell was charged by Judge Ann Montgomery and could face hefty fines if found guilty at trial.