A man’s insistent demands for more and more crackers and nuts to nibble during an international flight progressed to behaviour so erratic that the pilot diverted the aircraft and dumped 50,000 litres of fuel, a court has heard.
The airline incurred extra costs of up to AUD 712,000, some 270 passengers were delayed 24 hours and many ended up sleeping on an airport floor.
The extraordinary saga of United Airlines flight UA971 from Rome to Chicago surfaced in court in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the city to which the plane diverted when the nut demands reached a crescendo.
The court heard that passenger Jeremiah Mathis Thede, from California, had made insistent demands for nuts and crackers, then paced the aisle, lifting bags and disturbing the 282 passengers and crew.
His behaviour grew so disruptive the pilot decided to head for Belfast.
After landing, the crew ran out of hours so the plane had to wait almost 24 hours to take off again. Most passengers had to sleep on Belfast Airport’s terminal floor, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported.
Thede appeared at a Magistrates’ Court north of Belfast charged with endangering aircraft safety, disruptive behaviour on board and common assault against a flight attendant.
An airport policeman told the court problems started when Thede allegedly got out of his seat 15 minutes after take-off, defying the seat-belt sign, to demand “nuts or crackers”.
He said Thede refused to sit down until fed nuts. Ten minutes later he arose and demanded yet more nuts.
When cabin crew told the Californian nut fancier to wait until other passengers were served, Thede retorted: “I can have as much nuts and crackers as I f****** want!”
Thede was said to have repeatedly left his seat, opened overhead baggage lockers, blocked aisles and made numerous trips to toilets.
At one point, the captain asked a number of men to sit around Thede in case he grew violent. Although no one was struck during the flight, the captain decided to divert.
The policeman estimated the cost of the incident to be “upwards of 300,000 to 350,000 pounds [AUD 611,000 to AUD 713,000].
“There is compensation for passengers,” the policeman said. “There were 269 passengers lying sleeping on the floor of the terminal because there were no hotel rooms found for them.”
Rick Sliter, another Californian passenger, who was travelling with his mother and children, told NBC News that United gave him a USD 70 food voucher at the airport.
“The captain indicated that they had tried extremely hard and called multiple places but that there were not many hotel rooms available,” said Sliter, whose children slept on the floor of the airport during the flight’s layover.
Thede denies the offences. He told police officers he didn’t do it, there was a conspiracy against him and people were picking on him, the Belfast policeman told the court. Thede claimed cabin crew had over-reacted, his lawyer said.
Alcohol was not a factor, the court heard – which distinguishes this case from many other instances of so-called “air rage”.
The defendant was remanded in custody pending a psychiatric examination.
Written by Peter Needham