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Nine years! Judge doubles in-flight smoker’s jail time

May 29, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Four and a half years in prison is simply not long enough for somebody who insists on smoking in flight and causes a fire through his actions.

That was the feeling of Britain’s top judges, who have sent a powerful message to those who cause in-flight disruption and panic. They reviewed the sentence of a drunken airline passenger who caused terror in the air by smoking in the toilet and tossing his burning cigarette butt into the wastepaper locker, causing a fire.

The judges more than doubled the prison sentence imposed on John Cox, 46. The new sentence has seen him sent to prison for nine years and six months.

The extraordinary story of two potentially catastrophic mid-air fires on a flight carrying nearly 200 people first surfaced in Birmingham Crown Court earlier this year. The court in the English city heard that two fires had broken out on a full Monarch Airlines flight from Birmingham to the Egyptian resort destination of Sharm El Sheikh. Passengers, who included young children, had become distressed and hysterical.

The blazes broke out in separate toilets at different stages of the flight, the court heard. Former soldier Cox pleaded guilty to causing one of them. Despite suspicions about the other fire, the culprit was never identified officially.

The second fire caused the flight’s captain to issue a Mayday call and prepare for an emergency landing.

The Monarch flight to Sharm El Sheikh departed Birmingham in the afternoon of 27 August 2015 and proceeded normally until the plane had been airborne for about an hour and was passing over Munich.

The captain then received an electronic cockpit alert that a smoke detector had been activated in one of the plane’s toilets. Cabin crew rushed to the scene and found a blaze in the toilet’s waste paper compartment. They used two fire extinguishers and water to put it out.

Captain Shane Curtis then issued a “strongly worded” announcement about smoking on the flight, warning passengers of the consequences. He told crew to remain vigilant and decided to carry on with the flight, with four remaining fire extinguishers aboard.

Three hours later, while over Egypt, the cockpit alarm sounded again. Another fire had broken out in waste paper in another toilet. Cabin crew struggled against smoke and flame, exhausting two of the remaining fire extinguishers, the court heard. A former pilot, who had worked in fire and rescue, was aboard and helped.

At this point Captain Curtis issued a Mayday call, signalling a life-threatening emergency, and prepared to land in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. The fire had by then been brought under control and the captain considered it was safe to fly on to the scheduled destination, Sharm El Sheikh, which is about 560 kilometres from Alexandria, a little over an hour’s flight time. The plane was an Airbus – Monarch operates A320s and A321s, as well as Boeing aircraft.

Cox, an ex soldier, was said to have admitted drinking alcohol served aboard as well as having brought his own alcohol on the plane. He became aggressive when confronted.

The fires had a “profound” effect on crew, captain and passengers, the court heard.

Cox admitted starting one of the two fires and pleaded guilty to a charge of reckless arson.

At the first trial, Judge Mark Wall QC told Cox his “stupid and dangerous” act could have led directly to the deaths of over 200 people and “must have ruined the holidays of countless people and made future flying an ordeal for many”.

He jailed Cox for four and a half years.

The Solicitor General then mounted an appeal against the perceived leniency of that sentence.

In the Appeal Court in London, Lady Justice Sharp agreed that Cox’s sentence was far too lenient – and doubled it to nine and a half years.

The Birmingham Mail quoted her telling the court: “The potential for causing disaster here was plain and obvious.

“The sentence passed was unduly lenient, this offence called for a deterrent sentence and condign punishment.”

The court heard Cox, a “hard-working family man”, started drinking in the airport departure lounge, and kept it up while in the air. Of previous good character, he was under stress at the time due to his marriage breaking down.

Lady Justice Sharp referred to testimony from the flight’s captain, a 20-year veteran with Monarch, who said he had never experienced an incident with so much potential danger.

“The level of culpability and potential for harm is at the highest level,” the judge declared.

“To throw a cigarette butt into a wastepaper bin without ensuring it is extinguished would show a high degree of recklessness. On an aircraft at 33,000ft, the conduct comes perilously close to deliberate fire-setting.”

An exceptional case called for a deterrent sentence, the court decided.

Written by Peter Needham

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