By Travel columnist
updated 7/25/2005 8:40:36 PM ET 2005-07-26T00:40:36

For the better part of 18 years, I have witnessed just about every in-flight fight imaginable. The culprits are many: celebrities, jealous boyfriends, girlfriends, strangers, friends, inebriates — even airline employees. However it starts, it never ends in a good way.

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You may say it would never happen to you, but consider the following scenario: You are traveling at 35,000 feet, you sit back, relax, and try to forget the recent hassles with security, weather delays, long lines and carry-on mishaps when, all of a sudden, the passenger in front of you reclines his seat into your lap.

You ask him nicely to raise his seat a couple of inches and he replies in a “Piss off!” manner. You ask the flight attendant for assistance and she tells you there is nothing she can do. (Which, unfortunately, is true: Passengers have the right to recline their seats as far they will go.)

This is the last straw in your long day of unfortunate events, so you decide to make a point of bumping the offending seat as often as possible. Before long, fists are flying.

Unlikely, you think? Think again. Seventy percent of all in-flight fights start with a quarrel over reclining seats. But reclining seats are just one of many excuses for fisticuffs. Here is a list of the top ten fights I have witnessed in my flying career:

  1. A wife caught her husband in the lavatory with another woman. The man had had too much to drink, and there were words. After things calmed down a bit, the wife took all the witnesses’ names for future legal proceedings. I guess they settled out of court, as I was never called to testify.
  2. A female passenger shoved a wad of chewing gum into the hair of a woman making fun of her hair-do. It was like two cats spinning around in a whirlwind. And these ladies were grown adults, not teenagers.
  3. During the meal service, a gentleman asked the reclining passenger in from of him for a few more inches so he could eat. When the recliner rudely said no, the gentleman dumped his entire plate of cheese tortellini directly on top of his head.
  4. An Indian man flying from Bombay became angry when I cut off his alcohol. He took a swing at both me and a pilot, and missed badly. We handcuffed him to the seat. The gentleman was arrested in London and received 6 months in jail. (That was before 9/11. The charge and penalty would be much stiffer now.)
  5. A woman caught her boyfriend flirting with a flight attendant. Later in the flight, the man came to me disheveled and crying, pleading for a different seat. Apparently, every time he fell asleep, the girlfriend punched him in the face.
  6. A rude passenger in business class, who was yelling at the flight attendant, was the victim of many direct hits with peanuts, which were being fired by an anonymous passenger. Most everyone was asleep in the cabin, so finding the perpetrator was no easy feat. Eventually, the man caught the culprit in mid throw: a slovenly young man dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. When he grabbed the young man by the scruff of the neck, he found himself on the floor, brought down by the culprit’s bodyguard. The young man turned out to be a famous singer in one of my favorite rock bands. He went on to write a well-known song and music video about commercial air travel.
  7. At the gate during a flight delay, a verbally abusive husband took out his frustration on his wife. The crowd and I were forced to listen to this man deliver insult after insult, but after he finally slapped his wife, a nearby female passenger spun him around and delivered a punch that would have made Mohammed Ali proud.
  8. A first class passenger greeted her flight attendant by throwing her fur coat at her and demanding, “Do something with this.” The flight attendant replied, “Certainly,” then threw the fur coat out the open door and onto the tarmac. The passenger raced up, demanded an explanation and got the reply, “I don’t touch fur. Plus, I did something with it as you asked.” The passenger slapped the flight attendant, earning herself a night in jail (first class doesn’t give you every privilege), and the flight attendant was eventually fired.
  9. Fifteen years ago, a husband-and-wife pilot team had to make an unscheduled landing after a cockpit argument turned physical. I learned this from the husband, now divorced, who is proud to be the man behind the rule that spouses may not fly in the same pilot crew.
  10. My most memorable incident was a flight with a fellow flight attendant and friend named Lance. Lance had an effeminate personality and a unique sense of humor. In the boarding area, our muscle-headed first officer ranted on and on about how the flight attendants had better agree to concessions in an ongoing labor negotiation. He was shut down each time by Lance’s barbed wit. Not liking being made a fool, he called Lance a “fairy” and gave him a shove. In one swift karate move, Lance spun around and flipped the first officer on his back.

“A fairy who has a black belt,” Lance said in his most effeminate voice. “Let’s end this now before someone really gets hurt.”

The enraged pilot regrouped and charged again. Lance dodged a fist, delivered an elbow to the face and a swift kick to the groin. The pilot fell back again, blood streaming from his nose. The passengers and I watched in disbelief.

Security arrived moments later and the two were escorted away. At Lance’s request, I took names and addresses of eyewitnesses. I was interviewed, wrote many reports and was called to testify at a disciplinary hearing. I did all that I could, but Lance was fired. The kicker: Even though the pilot started it, he was only suspended.

Remarkably, Lance took it all in stride. He filed a lawsuit against the airline for false dismissal and after two years settled out of court for job reinstatement, back pay and an undisclosed amount of money.

After his first month back to work, Lance called to tell me he had quit. He had planned to go back to school at the time of the incident anyway, and the pilot had unwittingly provided him with the opportunity and, eventually, the tuition money. Lance had once taken some pre-law courses; during his lawsuit he passed the bar exam and became a full-fledged lawyer.

“Lance, I don’t know what to say. You’re like …, like … ,” I said.

“I know, I know, kind of like Super Fairy, right?” Lance interjected.

“Yeah!”

Lance was the winner of that fight, hands down.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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