On December 3rd 2014, Boris Johnson was widely covered in many of the UK’s national and London newspapers, for having helped to ‘calm down’ a drunk and abusive passenger on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH2 from Kuala Lumpur to London the previous night.
I was on that flight. In fact, I was the first person to get involved and, along with a couple of other passengers, spent a large part of the flight with the crew, either actively assisting, or discussing the situation with them, or generally ‘keeping an eye’ and being ready to step in again should the need arise. Boris’s actual contribution amounted essentially to wandering into the galley while we were all in there trying to calm down the passenger from his gradually-escalating air rage, mumbling something to the effect of “I say old chap, if you don’t calm down, you’ll be arrested when we land in London”, and then wandering off again.
Pretty much everything Boris got credited for was actually me – but hey, I don’t have a PR team working for me, able to fire off a press release almost as soon as the wheels hit the runway at Heathrow… 😉
Anyway, here’s my recollection of what happened.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH2 on the evening of Tuesday December 2nd 2014 was operated by an Airbus A380. Due to depart at 23:55, the flight was, as I recall, on time and so we would have been boarding perhaps 30 or 40 minutes prior to that – so sometime after 11pm.
My seat was 10G, on the upper deck, on the right-hand side of the centre pair, near the front of the second of two Business Class cabins, with a galley and toilets located between them, forward of my seat. I boarded, and as I sat down, I saw a familiar face walking down the aisle, from the front, towards me.
“Oh, hello Boris,” I said, more out of surprise than any particularly considered greeting.
We’d never met before of course, and he didn’t know me, and I only recognised him from television and newspapers, but I imagine as Mayor of London he was probably quite used to random strangers saying ‘hello’ – or worse! He gave me a cheery “Hello!” and continued on past to his seat – which was a window seat on the right-hand side, a few rows behind mine, perhaps 13 or 14K, I think.
As he passed, someone else evidently recognised him, because I heard a very loud “Boris Johnson!” called from somewhere behind me but close by. It wasn’t aggressive, but neither was it friendly – it was said in the sort of way one might greet an old acquaintance upon an unexpected chance encounter, but when that acquaintance might equally be a good friend or a hated adversary. Hard to tell which it was in this case, but it certainly felt like there was some history there. I do recall thinking “Oh here we go, they’re going to be yacking away for the whole flight.” Little did I know what was to come…
Anyway, we pushed back, taxied out, and took off without incident, until about an hour or so into the flight. I think it was shortly before the meal service began, but it could have been afterwards. I became aware of, and then increasingly distracted by, someone behind me and to my right, shouting loudly. I looked around a few times and established that it was a man (a Westerner, not Malaysian, and no, it wasn’t Boris!) in seat 11K. He had his airline-supplied noise-cancelling headphones on and appeared to be having an argument with whatever movie he was watching.
After a while of this, and seeing that other people nearby were getting equally as irritated as I was, I got up, turned back to his seat and got his attention. I gestured to him to remove his headphones and then, with my best polite voice, said something to the effect of “Really sorry, but could you keep your voice down please?”
He was actually very apologetic and promised to do so. I did not get any sense at this point that he was drunk. I returned to my seat and settled down to watch a movie.
Not long afterwards, I became aware of shouting from the galley in front – over the sound of my movie, playing through my Kliptsch earbuds which usually do a pretty good job of blocking out external noise. I paused my movie, removed my earbuds and listened for a while. I caught the eye of another passenger diagonally opposite me a row ahead. He looked concerned, and I daresay I looked the same to him.
At this point, a male cabin crew member came running forwards – well, maybe not running, but certainly walking quickly, towards the galley. I stopped him briefly and asked “Is there anything you can do to stop that racket?” Which in hindsight was probably not the most constructive thing to say! But it served a purpose, because as he turned and replied “We’re trying, we’re trying,” he looked seriously worried. I mean really worried.
“Let me know if you need any help,” I said.
“Thank you,” he replied. “We will.”
He continued on to the galley. But the shouting did not stop.
I again exchanged glances with my fellow passenger in front, then I got up and walked forward.
“I’m going up there,” I said to him, and continued on past.
“I’ll come with you,” I heard him reply.
I went through the curtain into the galley and saw, if I remember correctly, two or possibly three stewardesses and the male crewmember I’d seen go past moments previously, being shouted at by the passenger from 11K, who I’d earlier asked to quieten down. This time he was far more aggressive, and shouting words to the effect of “Get me an [expletive] drink! I want an [expletive] drink!”. The crew were asking him to calm down, but evidently not succeeding.
“Mate,” I said, standing directly in front of him and using that general, all-purpose, good old British greeting that conveys goodwill but not necessarily friendship, and being class-neutral, implies nothing about one’s relative social standing and therefore offers nothing at which offence might be taken.
Keeping my voice deliberately calm and level, I continued: “You’re making a lot of noise. Causing a disturbance. There’s a lot of people back there trying to watch their movies or get some rest, and you’re disturbing them. You need to calm down.”
Which, in hindsight rather astonishingly, is exactly what he did.
Now, my memory of the sequence of events from here is a little hazy, although the actual individual events themselves remain very clear. I’m convinced in my mind that there were two separate incidents in the galley, with Mr 11K having returned to his seat in between the two. But it’s possible that it was all one single incident. So here’s what I believe happened, but with the caveat that things could have unfolded the other way around.
As I recall, at this point he went back to his seat. Albeit not before having leaned forwards and given me a hug – which took me by surprise and did cause me a brief moment of concern as I thought he was about to headbutt me (which becomes significant later on, because he actually did headbutt someone else a few hours later). But no, he hugged me, said sorry, went back and sat down.
I stayed in the galley for a while, chatting to the crew. I remember one of the ladies asking me if I was a police officer. Not guilty!
One thing that is of significance here, because all the subsequent reports were that he was excessively drunk: when he hugged me, I did not smell any alcohol on his breath, nor did I personally see him consume any alcohol. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t drunk of course, but that – and the fact that, as I will come to shortly, far from passing out as drunks tend eventually to do, he kept up his shouting for a good ten or eleven hours – makes me suspect alcohol may not have been the problem. A different drug perhaps, or maybe an unexpected side-effect of some medication or other that doesn’t mix well with altitude. Who knows.
Anyway, I returned to my seat and resumed my movie, but sometime afterwards, noticed the man once again heading towards the galley. I felt sufficiently concerned that I sat up, put my shoes on, and got ready to follow him should the need arise.
Possibly he went to the bathroom because initially there was no obvious disturbance. But that didn’t last long. Shouting soon ensued. I went up.
I arrived in the galley just in time to see him throw a glass at one of the stewardesses. I think I may have grabbed his wrist, or blocked his arm, but I’m not completely sure. In any case, the glass missed, luckily. Another passenger came in from the forward cabin – a tall Westerner with rugby player physique – and between us and the crewmembers, we surrounded the aggressor.
It’s funny what you notice in these situations, and the little details you remember. I recall seeing what struck me as a military-style tattoo on the man’s arm, and thinking “Uh oh, is this guy a soldier?” I remember noticing a watch on the galley floor, knocked from someone’s wrist during the scuffle. I remember a crewmember retrieving it, while another was on the intercom to the flightdeck, I assume getting permission to use the restraints, or possibly calling for assistance from crew in other parts of the aircraft.
The restraints were not used immediately, as the guy appeared to calm down. It was at this point that Boris Johnson turned up, gave his “I say old chap…” line, and then wandered off.
With the aggressor now seemingly more relaxed, we shepherded him out of the galley and back to his seat. If I remember correctly, by this time another male crewmember had arrived and taken up position to block the aisle aft of his seat, so that he couldn’t make a run for the rear of the aircraft.
I recall that once he was back in his seat, I and my two fellow passengers – the ‘rugby player’ and the chap I’d first exchanged glances with – huddled at the front of the cabin for a chat.
“If it comes to it, are we ready to take this guy down?” I asked. Which sounds preposterous now, but perhaps gives an idea of how we were feeling at the time. I think we were all concerned that the situation might escalate into something far more dangerous. I suppose my own thinking was to check that, if it really did become necessary to physically restrain him, it wouldn’t just be one of us on our own.
I think probably we were all also concerned about whether the crew alone would be able to restrain him. To be fair, the crew were superb and handled the whole thing very professionally, but the fact remained that this guy was bigger than all of them, well built, possibly with a military background, and possibly ‘on something’. And on top of that, once in his seat, the shouting and swearing resumed.
“Absolutely!” came the reply from my fellow passengers, which was at least reassuring, even if in practice there was probably not a lot we would really be able to do, and as we found out later, the crew were more than capable.
We returned to the galley and spent quite some time – a few hours I think – chatting with the crew and with another passenger who came to the galley – one of Boris’ entourage (they had all been on a government trade mission to Malaysia), who happened to mention that Boris was travelling without any security detail. I think we’d been discussing how come his (assumed) bodyguard or some such hadn’t got involved. Turned out he didn’t have one. Ordinary man of the people etc…
Boris himself came into the galley at some point, on his way to the bathroom. We chatted for a few minutes before he wandered off. With great prescience as it turned out, albeit perhaps it wasn’t any great leap of imagination to predict, someone said “That’s the future Prime Minister there.” This was well before Brexit was on the radar (let alone the current coronavirus crisis) and of course none of us could have known the lengths Boris would go to in achieving that position. I do remember forming the impression that his public ‘buffoon’ persona was all an act – he was clearly a very smart, knowledgeable and intelligent man. If there was any indication of him being a brazen, duplicitous liar, he hid it well.
Now, while we were in the galley chatting with the crew, and regularly peeking out to check the cabin, the shouting from Mr 11K continued. But I think we’d all concluded that we weren’t going to be able to stop it, and at least he was sat down and not physically trying to punch anyone. I think everyone else had decided that any hope of sleep was a write-off, so headphones and movies was the best option. I did feel rather sorry for the petite Chinese lady who had the misfortune to be sitting in 11H though. Particularly with what happened next.
At some point, Mr 11K got angry with his TV screen and evidently decided that a return to the galley was in order. I don’t know whether he physically punched the screen – I do have a vague recollection of him going for the window – but he stood up suddenly and promptly fell onto the lady next to him and then rolled into the aisle.
We all ran down and surrounded him. Meanwhile, he’d managed to get up and promptly headbutted one of the crew. That pretty much lit the fuse, and the crew decided they’d had enough. A sort of slow-motion organised chaos ensued as the crew basically dragged him to the ground, pinned him down, applied the restraints to his wrists, and gaffer taped his ankles. He was then literally thrown back into his seat and buckled in, his hands wedged behind his back.
I don’t know what happened to the Chinese lady. I assume she was re-seated as I didn’t see her again. I hope she was ok! For the rest of the flight, a male crewmember took her seat.
I wish I could say that was the end of it all, but it wasn’t. The shouting resumed, the swearing got worse, and on top of that, it all got a bit racist. The poor crewmember sitting next to him had to endure repeated observations of “You’re a brown bastard” and the like. To be fair, he took it stoically, and did a very good job of remaining calm and professional. I think he could easily have been forgiven for planting something very heavy and/or sharp in the guy’s face.
This continued for quite a few hours. I don’t recall Mr 11K ever actually falling asleep during the flight, though he may have done briefly. I know I didn’t get any sleep, and I’m not sure anyone else did. I tried, but I found myself constantly on the alert in case it all kicked off again.
Eventually we got into the last few hours of the flight, and the crew started preparing for the breakfast service. I assume the crewmember who had been sitting in 11H got called away to help with the service, because the next thing I knew, Mr 11K had somehow escaped from his seat and, with his arms still handcuffed behind his back, and his ankles still gaffer taped together, was shuffling his way up the aisle towards the galley.
No doubt we were all thinking “Oh here we go again!” But by this point the breakfast service had started – the tray tables were out, and the first course was being served. I looked around, and I think a few of us were considering whether we needed to get up. I did briefly push my table aside and get ready to go, but it fairly quickly became apparent that intervention wouldn’t be needed. He was still shouting a fair bit, but now it was more along the lines of “I need the bathroom” and begging to be released from the restraints, rather than anything directed at the crew.
The crew were having none of it, and I think had decided (quite rightly) that they’d rather leave him slumped in the aisle – and if necessary let him wet himself – than risk removing the restraints. Despite the right-side aisle now being blocked, they very calmly and professionally continued with the breakfast service from the left aisle.
Once that was all over and the trays had been cleared away, two or three crewmembers turned their attention back to him and, without any great fanfare, simply picked him up and carried him back to his seat, and buckled him back in. As before, a crewmember sat next to him.
I think he must have been sobering up (or coming down, perhaps) by this point, because the shouting had subsided and been replaced with something more like whimpering.
We landed without incident and everyone was asked to remain seated while armed police came on board. First Boris was escorted off – I think accompanied by the rest of his party, but I’m not sure about that – and then the police turned their attention to extracting Mr 11K from his seat and carting him off to the police station. Everyone else was then allowed to disembark (at least from the upper deck – I don’t know whether those on the lower deck had been made to wait, or had left the aircraft as soon as the doors opened. I’m not certain they would even have been aware of what had been going on upstairs).
I and the other passengers who had been involved stayed behind to give statements to the police, which was done downstairs in the First Class cabin (bigger tables and more space to sit facing the officer taking the statements). My main recollection from there is that the cabin smelled extremely badly of stale farts!
I then proceeded on my way.
I was pleasantly surprised in the following weeks at how much the police stayed in touch, and kept me (and I assume the others) informed about what was happening with the case. Mr 11K was apparently arrested and charged, and subsequently pleaded guilty in court and received a six-month prison sentence.
I have no idea what happened to him after that, or indeed what had caused his prolonged air-rage. The official account is, I believe, excessive alcohol consumption. I still find it hard to believe that someone can get so drunk and still stay awake – and be aggressive – for eleven hours…
Meanwhile Malaysia Airlines sent me a nice bottle of champagne and some chocolates to thank me for my help. I didn’t expect or ask for any reward (though perhaps other passengers sought compensation for the disruption to their sleep, I don’t know) but I thought that was a very nice gesture.
The crew, I have to say, were absolutely superb throughout, and a credit to the airline. As for Boris Johnson – well, he got the headlines of course.