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Reclining seats, head smacks, aborted flight to Africa, two F-16’s: just another day in the friendly skies

An airplane lands beneath darkened skies.
An airplane lands beneath darkened skies.
Fredrik Olastuen/Flickr

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Late Sunday night a pair of Air Force F-16 fighter jets escorted a United Airlines Boeing 767 bound for Ghana back to Dulles International Airport, following a passenger scuffle. One passenger slapped the traveler a seat ahead of him on the head, after the latter reclined his chair too far back into the offended man’s lap. A flight attendant and another passenger broke up the ensuing fight, while the pilot turned back to Dulles. In response to a potential terrorist threat, two fighter jets took off from Andrews Air Force Base as soon as the plane had reentered Washington airspace and accompanied the plane on its 25 minute flight to burn off excess fuel before landing. The Dulles police awaited the passengers at the gate, but no charges were pressed. Increased security measures and quick responses to on-flight disturbances have become common in the wake of the September 11th attacks, and in recent years have led to the detection of terrorism plots to blow up aircraft with explosive-laden shoes or clothing. But did this scuffle warrant an entourage of fighter jets? Who determines the intensity of responses to security threats, and how are these decisions made?


Rusty Aimer, CEO of My Aviation Expert.com and a former United Airlines pilot