It’s the most expensive flight Ben Iontton or Natalie Walker ever took, and they didn’t even reach their destination.
In what was described as an "unprecedented" move, the U.K. residents were ordered by a Winnipeg judge this week to pay $100,000 each in restitution to TUI Airways after their drunk and aggressive behaviour resulted in their Los Cabos, Mexico-bound flight being diverted to Winnipeg, Jan. 30, stranding hundreds of passengers overnight.
The incident shined a spotlight on what the International Air Transport Association has called the "significant problem" of unruly passengers.
Iontton, 25, pleaded guilty to mischief over $5,000 and assaulting a police officer, while Walker, 34, pleaded guilty to mischief over $5,000 and causing a disturbance. Each was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Prosecutor Peter Edgett said the "exceptional" nature of the circumstances merited the "unprecedented" restitution order.
"It was a number that we thought was reasonable and justifiable," Edgett said Friday.
Distinct from a fine, which is intended to deter behaviour, restitution orders are meant to compensate victims for financial losses incurred as a result of a crime.
TUI spent $100,000 lodging and feeding the Winnipeg passengers, Edgett said. The flight diversion meant hundreds more passengers in Los Cabos were unable to make their departing flights on time, incurring further costs.
The $100,000 restitution order was "off the charts" in terms of precedence, Edgett said. In the closest comparable case, a B.C court in 2013 ordered two men to pay $38,000 in restitution after their behaviour resulted in their Beijing-bound flight being diverted to Vancouver. The award was reduced to $10,500 each on appeal.
Posted: 04/02/2020 5:42 PM
A man and woman from the United Kingdom have been sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $100,000 each after their drunken escapades aboard a Los Cabos, Mexico-bound plane forced pilots to divert it to Winnipeg late Friday morning.
Ben Iontton, 25, pleaded guilty in provincial court Tuesday to mischief over $5,000 and assaulting a police officer while Natalie Walker, 34, pleaded guilty to causing a disturbance and mischief over $5,000.
Unlike the case when the flight of a domestic airline is diverted, U.K.-based TUI Airways did not have a second crew available to take over when its flight made an unscheduled landing in Winnipeg, resulting in more costly delays.
"There was just a different dynamic in place here," Edgett said.
He and defence lawyer Amado Claros — who represented both Iontton and Walker — jointly recommended the hefty restitution order, knowing there were thorny issues of jurisdiction at play.
"Some of the costs were in Mexico, some happened here, you also have the jurisdiction of England, so there was some give and take," Edgett said.
One jurisdictional question was clear. Under Section 7 of the Criminal Code of Canada, anyone who commits a criminal offence aboard a flight that terminates in Canada "shall be deemed to have committed that act… in Canada."
"In this case, even though the flight left England, some of it happened in these spots of (questionable) jurisdiction 30,0000 feet in the air, because it landed in Winnipeg, the Criminal Code says we have jurisdiction," Edgett said.
Iontton and Walker will be deported upon completing their sentence and will not be allowed back in Canada. And the restitution order will follow them home. TUI can make an application to U.K. courts to enforce the order, opening Iontton and Walker up to garnishment orders, liens, and other enforcement measures.
Court heard Iontton works in construction and Walker as a cleaner.
"They may not be of means yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have means when they mature, get older, get an inheritance," Edgett said. "They aren’t out of it."
For John Webb, air travel had always been a trouble-free prelude to a well-deserved vacation.
Then he met Iontton.
"I have never been on a flight with someone who behaved that way," the U.K. resident said Thursday from Los Cabos.
"It has somewhat spoiled the holiday we had planned," Webb said. "I never thought it would get so bad until it was really happening."
“It has somewhat spoiled the holiday we had planned.” - Passenger John Webb
Webb was seated across the aisle from Iontton and watched as he went from seemingly sober to a raging, uncontrollable drunk over the span of two or three hours.
Web estimated Iontton downed up to 10 large glasses of wine, provided free with the flight, according to Web, before flight attendants cut him off. By that time he had already been stumbling about the plane, spilling food and drink on passengers and verbally abusing those in his path.
Iontton became so unruly and aggressive three flight staff had to handcuff and strap him to his seat.
"He tried to jump out of the seat, but he didn’t really get the opportunity," Webb said.
Walker, meanwhile, seated several rows away, was raising her own ruckus after she had several in-flight drinks and dipped into a bottle of duty-free gin. One passenger, court heard Tuesday, said she yelled and swore at flight crew and pointed her legs in the air, pretending to give birth. It was Walker’s continuing antics upon landing in Winnipeg that delayed departure to the point the flight had to be suspended.
TUI Airways did not respond to an interview request.
Flight diversions for disruptive passengers remain a "pretty rare occurrence" in Winnipeg, said Winnipeg Airport Authority spokesperson Jennifer Cameron.
Rare, maybe, but not unheard of. In March 2018, four U.K. men en route to a stag party in Las Vegas were arrested after their drunk and disruptive behaviour caused their flight to be diverted to Winnipeg. The men reportedly drank their own duty-free liquor, smoked e-cigarettes, intimidated passengers and fought on the plane. Back home in Manchester, Craig Hopwood, Michael Ward and Scott Capper were sentenced to two years in prison. Daniel Howarth was sentenced to 19 months.
Cameron said flight diversions for other reasons — including medical emergencies, weather conditions, and refueling — are routine. The number of diversions "vary from year to year depending on an array of external factors and circumstances," she said.
Before takeoff, pilots decide on alternate routes and landing destinations in case of an emergency, said a spokesperson for civil air navigation service NAV Canada. If an emergency landing is deemed necessary, flight staff alert NAV Canada, who will confirm if the airport has the runway capacity or room to handle the plane.
"We are equipped to accommodate a flight diversion and we partner with the airlines and NAV Canada to get the planes en route to its intended destination as quickly as we can," Cameron said. "In a case like we saw last week, we reached out to the RCMP so there was that added element, but more or less we are quite used to things like diversions… Our manager of operations and our team will work with them to help (arrange for) accommodations and get them to their intended destinations as quickly as possible."
The RCMP is the primary investigating agency for the Richardson International Airport.
When it comes to disruptive passenger, pilots don’t consult with police before making a decision to divert a plane, said RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Paul Manaigre.
"Their primary (concern) is the safety of the passengers in that aircraft, so that decision is solely based on the information they receive and they will act accordingly," he said. "There’s no back and forth with police. They are in the aircraft and have to make the determination."
“There’s no back and forth with police. They (the pilots) are in the aircraft and have to make the determination.” - RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Paul Manaigre
According to the International Air Transport Association, there were 8,731 "unruly incidents" reported on aircrafts in 2017, or one for every 1,053 flights.
Forty-nine per cent of the incidents involved non-compliance with safety regulations, followed by alcohol related offences (27 per cent) and non-compliance with smoking regulations (24 per cent).
According to Transport Canada, behaviour that can result in a flight diversion includes harassment, verbal abuse, physical or sexual assault, intimidating behaviour, smoking, drunk or disorderly conduct, ignoring safety instructions and endangering aircraft safety.
"If any of these occur during flight, the aircraft may make an unscheduled landing and the police will meet the aircraft," a Transport Canada spokesperson said in an email to the Free Press. "The decision to remove a passenger or divert a flight due to unruly passenger behaviour is at the discretion of the flight crew."
Westjet, responding to a Free Press query, said incidents involving "disruptive guests" remains "uncommon."
Barry Prentice, a transportation economist and professor of supply chain management with the Asper School of Business, suggested the IATA’s figures on unruly passengers exaggerates the extent of the problem.
Westjet, responding to a Free Press query, said incidents involving “disruptive guests” remains “uncommon.”
"It is not something we can take too lightly, but at the same time I don’t think we should think this is some sort of trend," Prentice said.
"What do they define as an incident? Those safety regulations may be someone who didn’t put their seatbelt on… It comes back to how great is that safety issue. I’ve never heard of a plane crashing because someone on board was making a fuss."
And if alcohol-related incidents are a serious problem, there is a simple solution, Prentice said.
"Cut off the number of drinks someone can have or ban alcohol completely," he said.
At least one air passenger would agree.
"If they had served (Iontton) just two glasses of wine, I think we would have safely made it to Mexico," John Webb said.
Updated on Friday, February 7, 2020 at 7:10 PM CST: Updates headline