F-16s Scramble Over Reclined Airline Seat

A passenger started a fight over a reclined airplane seat, causing fighter planes to scramble.

For the Now Here’s Something You Don’t Read Every Day files:

WaPo (“Airplane annoyance leads to brouhaha in the 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.

While it’s easy in hindsight to lampoon such a wild overreaction to a minor incident, I’m not going to second guess either the scrambling of F-16s or the return to Dulles. Especially for a flight originating so close to the national capital.

What actually surprises me here is that the man who assaulted a fellow passenger and thereby caused tens of thousands of dollars to be wasted, to say nothing of the terrible inconvenience to the other passengers in delaying their flight, was not arrested. At very least, he should be permanently ensconced on the no-fly list.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    And the airlines with their ever decreasing legroom in the cheap seats are also to blame. In the old days, if someone fully reclines in front of me it was an annoyance, not a great problem (I’m rather a skinny guy of average height), but nowadays, the seatback is practically in my face.

  2. A voice from another precinct says:

    I have flown on a 767 and watched passengers walk across the seats from cushion to cushion going to the aisle when the seats were in the upright position. When the seats are fully reclined passengers are actually unable to move on United flights because there is not enough clearance to stand or climb onto the seat cushion. While I do not approve of the offending passengers actions and agree that going on the no-fly list is a suitable and appropriate punishment, I can understand his frustration and annoyance. And I will agree that United can share some of the blame, even if it doesn’t want to.

  3. Andyman says:

    I’ve never really understood why the seats need to recline anyway. If the person in front of you reclines, you’re either stuck with no room or you have to recline your own seat and pass the dilemma backwards.


    You say that the assaulter should be arrested, or “at the very least” be put on the no-fly list. I’d submit that with my job (nothing fancy, but some travel req’d) and vacation tastes, I’d rather do a little time in lockup than be permanently banned from flying. It’d be an interesting survey; how much time would your readership spend in jail to buy themselves off the no-fly list?

  4. John Burgess says:

    A long time ago, I was on a Pan Am–yes, that long ago–flight from JFK to Riyadh. The plane had just left the gate before an American, returning to his job in Saudi Arabia, lost it and got into a tussle with a Saudi passenger. In the scuffle, the passenger clock a stewardess (yes, still that long ago) and put her on the ground.

    The plane taxied back to the gate and NYC’s finest came aboard and arrested both combatants.

    It turned out that the American’s 10-y/o son, sitting about 12 rows behind him, was nearly left aboard before people discovered him. I suspect the fact that they were seated so far apart only added to the pressure of returning to the KSA.

    This was pre-no-fly list days, but the guy was arrested for simple assault on both the passenger and the crew. It occasioned a three-hour delay on an already 20-hr flight. Major suckitude.

    Yes, the airlines are responsible in part for these things. Whether it’s seating assignments, too tight crowding of passengers, or just generally bad attitudes, they do not improve what can already be a stressful experience. And I agree that seats in economy class simply should not be permitted to recline.

  5. josephinejoseph says:

    They need to lock the seats in a non reclined position or increase leg room.