Airplane annoyance leads to brouhaha in skies over D.C.

Before things got out of hand, it was a typical annoyance that happens once a flight gets airborne: A passenger hit the recline button and sent his seat intimately close to the lap of the guy sitting behind him.

What followed wasn’t typical at all: a smack to the head, peacemakers diving about the cabin to intervene and a pair of Air Force F-16 fighter jets scrambling into the night skies over Washington.

It happened late Sunday, just after a United Airlines Boeing 767 bound for Ghana with 144 passengers took off from Dulles International Airport.

Not long after the 10:44 p.m. departure for the overnight flight, the offending seat was lowered into the offended lap, and a fight ensued. A flight attendant and another passenger jumped in between, said sources familiar with the incident who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide details.

The pilot has complete authority over the aircraft, a United spokesman said, and he decided to return to Dulles to sort things out rather than continue the transatlantic flight to Ghana when he was unsure of the scope of the problem.

Airline and Homeland Security Department officials said they had no other details on the incident.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, pilots have learned to be wary. In recent years, disturbances have revealed terrorist attempts to ignite explosives hidden in shoes and underwear. Air Force fighter jets stand ready to respond to situations such as this one, in which passengers, who might be terrorists, cause trouble in flight.

A 767 can take off with 16,700 gallons of fuel, and for the more-than-5,000-mile flight to Accra, Ghana, it probably would have needed all of it. The full load of fuel weighs more than 57 tons, and, although a 767 can get that weight airborne, it can’t land with it.

As the plane turned back to Dulles, an air traffic controller directed the United pilot to fly around for about 25 minutes, shadowed by the fighter jets, to burn off an undetermined amount of fuel.

Audio transmissions indicate that the two Air Force fighters scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base at 11:03 p.m, just as the plane reentered Washington airspace.

Five minutes later, the fighter escorts took up position 1,000 feet above the jetliner as it headed toward Dulles, sources said.

At 11:10 p.m., the controller asked about the passenger who slapped his neighbor, and a voice from the cockpit replied: “The passenger is not secured at this time; the passenger has settled down, though, but an assault has taken place, but at this time he is not secured.”

Members of the Dulles police force met the flight at the gate, said Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Officers determined that the incident didn’t warrant pressing charges, Yingling said.

It was probably expensive, however.

In addition to the fuel cost — jet fuel averaged $3.03 a gallon last month — the flight was delayed until Monday. Given that no arrests were made, there was no official record of the incident, and the identities of the men involved were not known. It was unclear whether they were on the flight when it left Monday morning or, if so, where they sat, United spokesman Mike Trevino said.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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