A United Airlines flight was forced into a dramatic emergency landing that cost the taxpayer thousands after two passengers started a fistfight over a reclined seat, it has emerged.
Fighter jets were scrambled with two F-16s escorting Flight 990 as it dumped fuel to lessen its weight in order to land on Sunday night.
The Boeing 767, from Washington's Dulles Airport bound for Accra in Ghana, had 144people on board when the fight broke out, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said.
Government officials confirmed that fighter jets were scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
United spokesman Mike Trevino said Tuesday that the Boeing 767 dumped fuel as a safety precaution to lighten its weight on landing.
The Washington Post, which first reported the incident, reported that the fight began not long after takeoff when a passenger lowered his seat and a passenger behind him objected.
The overnight flight departed at 10.44pm, the newspaper reported.
Not long after that one passenger lowered his seat - presumably intending to attempt to doze off for the 5,000-mile flight.
But it seems he may have reclined a bit too far, inciting the fury of the passenger behind him, who, it appears, was unwilling to have the first passenger's head in his lap for nearly 11 hours.
The second passenger smacked the first passenger, and a fistfight quickly ensued, sources told the Post.
A flight attendant and another passenger intervened, and the pilot - who has full authority over a flight once it is in the air - decided to turn the plane around.
A United spokesman told the Washington Post that the pilot made that decision rather than carry on as he was unsure of the scope of the problem.
His over caution seems to have stemmed from September 11, and the fears pilots have faced since.
Air Force jets have been on standby ever since the attacks in 2001 to escort passenger jets when there is a fear of a potential terrorist threat.
The pilot's fears may have been compounded by the fact that he was still relatively near Washington, D.C. airspace - and all the potential targets within that area, such as the White House and the Pentagon.
At any rate, he took no chances, informing the tower that he was returning to the airport.
As the plane turned back, the tower ordered him to cruise for 25 minutes, escorted by the F-16s, to burn off fuel.
An F-16 is believed to cost roughly $50,000 per hour to scramble. With two tailing the Boeing 767 for at least half an hour, the price tag would have been near that.
A 767 can take off with up to 57 tonnes of fuel on board - all of which would have been needed for the flight to Ghana.
But the airplane can not land with that amount of fuel on board. It's not clear how much fuel was burned off. At one point a United spokesman said some fuel was also dumped over the Atlantic.
The Air Force jets were scrambled at 11.03pm, as the flight re-entered Washington airspace.
At 11.10pm the controller asked about the passenger who started the fight. The pilot 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.'
The flight was met at the airport by members of the Dulles police force - not the FBI - and, despite the drama, officers decided there was no need to press charges.