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Pilot defends flight diversion in air rage trial of passenger over snacks row

Published 11/04/2016

Jeremiah Mathis Thede denies endangering an aircraft or persons in the aircraft
Jeremiah Mathis Thede denies endangering an aircraft or persons in the aircraft

An airliner pilot who diverted a transatlantic flight after an alleged incident of passenger air rage sparked by a row over salty snacks has defended his decision.

Captain Jands Latura told the trial of Jeremiah Mathis Thede the unscheduled landing in Belfast was the first time in his 30-year piloting career he had changed course due to unruly on-board behaviour.

He said the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and his employers at United Airlines had not questioned or challenged the decision to divert, which was taken on safety grounds.

Thede, from California, denies a charge of recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger the Boeing 777 or persons in the aircraft which had been en route from Rome to Chicago.

He allegedly swore at a flight attendant after she refused his request for peanuts and crackers and, as the journey continued, is accused of engaging in other erratic and threatening behaviour.

Mr Latura told Antrim Crown Court: "We followed our procedures very, very well, we did what was necessary to ensure the safety of every passenger - every man, woman and child on that aeroplane."

He added: "He was behaving in a manner which was threatening, not just to flight attendants, but to other passengers and basically to the safety of the aircraft."

On the fourth day of the trial, the transcript of a police interview with Thede upon his arrest in Northern Ireland was outlined to the jury.

In it, he branded the allegations made by crew as a "fabrication" and "ludicrous".

Mr Latura said he had dealt with multiple incidents of disruptive behaviour in the last three decades but, on each occasion, the situation had been "de-escalated".

"I had 31 years without a divert, I wasn't keen on doing one this time either," he said.

The captain said crew had done everything possible to resolve the situation.

"We couldn't get it to calm down or de-escalate," he insisted.

Mr Latura said pilots were mindful of the international terror threat and, as a consequence, were wary of potential "distraction" behaviour designed to side-track crew from more sinister acts.

While this was not ultimately the case with Thede, the captain said it had to be considered as the situation involving the defendant unfolded.

He said it was the collective opinion of senior flight crew to divert before the flight crossed over the Atlantic Ocean.

"We can't pull over like a bus or train and drop a passenger off," he said.

"After we pass over the Atlantic there are little options, for multiple hours, to deal with the situation."

Earlier, a flight attendant told the court Thede pointed his finger at her face and demanded to know her name when she refused his request for additional snacks.

Lisa Hall told the jury: "He became very angry and he told me he could have all the f****** peanuts and crackers he wanted."

She claimed Thede had come back to the galley area of the economy section a short time after take-off, when the seat belt sign was on, and asked for peanuts and crackers.

He was given the snacks on that occasion but when he returned a short time later, Ms Hall said she told him there was only one snack per passenger.

Ms Hall claimed Thede became enraged and pointed his finger at her face.

"I felt like my heart was pounding, that something wasn't right with him," she said.

She added: "He started shouting at me before I could even finish my sentence."

Asked to characterise his demeanour, Ms Hall said: "He seemed extremely angry and it was just not normal behaviour."

The flight attendant with almost 30 years of experience told the court she expressed concern to the head flight attendant that "somebody was going to get hurt".

Asked who, she added: "Anybody confronting this passenger - any passenger on the aeroplane or any flight attendant."

In the transcript of Thede's police interview, which was later read to court, he denied the claims.

"That's a lie, that's 100% a lie - it's a fabrication," he told an interviewing police officer.

"I wouldn't have spoken to a woman in that position with those words or in that manner."

Thede, 42, from Berkeley, claimed he had been asleep for an hour when the diverted flight landed at Belfast.

"When they landed I thought we were in Chicago," he said.

Thede told police the decision to divert was "pretty poor judgement".

"I don't understand what kind of threat I could've been to that aircraft," he said.

The airliner carrying 264 passengers was flying to the US on June 20 last year when the captain made the decision to touch down at Belfast.

The plane had to dump thousands of litres of fuel before making the unscheduled stop in Northern Ireland.

As the crew would have exceeded their legal flying hours if the aircraft had resumed the journey straight away, the passengers had to wait almost 24 hours before the plane could take off again, with many having to sleep on the terminal floor.

Thede, dressed in a light grey suit and white shirt, listened from the dock as Mr Latura and Ms Hall gave evidence.

The prosecution concluded its evidence early on Monday afternoon.

The jury was then excused for legal issues to be discussed between the respective parties.

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