“I’m not a drinker, I was just so excited to see my Mrs.”
An airline passenger forced a pilot to divert a trans Atlantic Jumbo Jet to Manchester Airport at a cost of £17,000 after he had mid-air meltdown at 30,000 feet due to his fear of flying.
Father of two Zahi Lebhardt, 31, got so nervous on board the Canada-bound flight from Frankfurt in Germany, he repeatedly locked himself in the toilet where he screamed and ripped panels off the walls.
Crew on board tried to calm down the former Israeli army captain but Lebhardt, who had been drinking duty-free whisky and champagne, began spitting in the aisle.
The captain was alerted amid fears he would might cause a major incident over the Atlantic ocean.
The Lufthansa Boeing 747 flight LH470 made an emergency touchdown in Manchester 3,700 miles from its destination at Toronto after the captain was forced to dump up to 36 tonnes of fuel and Lebhardt and his luggage were removed.
The plane took off again two hours later but the airline estimated the cost of the diversion at 20,000€ due to other passengers missing connecting flights. The bill didn’t include the cost for unexpected grounding, nor the cost of refuelling.
At Manchester magistrates court Lebhardt who works as an IT specialist in Tel Aviv admitted being drunk on an aircraft.
He was given a three month suspended jail term and an order to pay £200 in costs after JPs were told he was being sued by Lufthansa for the cost of diverting the flight.
He appeared in court via video link from a British prison where he had been held since his arrest and said at the time of the offence he had been on his way to visit his girlfriend who was recovering from skin cancer.
Lebhardt said: “I’m quite shocked and devastated. It’s never happened to me in my entire life. I’m not a drinker, I was just so excited to see my Mrs.
“It will never happen again in my life, I swear. I want to come back to my kids and be a law-abiding citizen again. I’m a normal person and so ashamed to be in this position.”
Earlier prosecutor Rachel Parker, said the incident occurred on April 6 when Lebhardt drank 200ml of duty-free whisky as well as the complimentary champagne on board on the aircraft.
She added: “A member of crew noticed he seemed slightly intoxicated as his speech was slurred but she couldn’t decide whether it was due to alcohol or a medical condition.
“Prior to take off the defendant went to the toilet several times which crew found odd. As the aircraft took off he took out and put away his tray table and continued to do this in a noisy manner to the annoyance of other passengers. The crew were unable to stop him as they were seated.
“He continued with his trips to and from the toilet. On one occasion he locked himself inside and was screaming loudly and banging on the interior of the wash room for over five minutes. When he came out staff noticed panels lining the wash room had been pulled off the walls and the soap dispenser had been thrown around.
“It was noticed the defendant had an open bottle of whisky in front of him, a member of staff removed this from him as consumption of duty-free alcohol is forbidden on board. He returned to the seat and was behaving in an erratic manner. He then spat across the aisle of the aircraft, the saliva landing on the floor.
“The captain was informed and decided in the interest of the aircraft, crew and passengers he would divert to Manchester as crew were concerned that he would cause a serious incident over the Atlantic. The captain was required to dump a significant amount of fuel to land the aircraft.
“The defendant was slumped out of his seat and lay down on the floor. A member of staff tried to see whether he was ok but he didn’t respond.
“Officers came and escorted him off the plane. When in the police van he began to scream and thrash about. The estimated costs are approximately 20,000€ due to missed flights.
“This doesn’t include the cost for unexpected grounding, nor the cost of refuelling at Manchester – the aircraft took a further 36 tonnes of aviation fuel. The total costs are therefore substantial.
“The defendant was asked to explain himself, he said he had a glass of wine from Israel to Frankfurt and at Frankfurt bought a bottle of whisky. He started to drink from this bottle and when he boarded the aircraft was offered a glass of champagne but doesn’t remember drinking it.
“He was shown the bottle of whisky which was three quarters empty and he said that was it. He was asked if he was on any medication and said no. He did state he was a nervous flier.
‘’He was asked about the damage and said he has OCD and when he went to the toilet he found a small cup and tried to flush it down the toilet several times. Then he went to wash his hands and the soap dispenser fell off the wall. There has been an application for compensation from the airline. It’s likely they will attempt to pursue the defendant in the civil courts.”
In mitigation defence lawyer Vic Wozny, said: “He has flown as an adult many times and has never previously caused a single problem. On the day in question he was on his way to Canada to see his girlfriend who had just recovered from skin cancer and he was very excited.
“What screams out was that he was not threatening or violent. He does have OCD and is a nervous flier and he did go to the toilet on a number of occasions. He did shout and scream he has no idea why that should have been. He bites his nails terribly but never intentionally spat at anybody.
“He is from Tel Aviv and people say they are very brash and loud and in your face, rather like New Yorkers. That can appear to be aggressive but no aggression was intended. To be sentenced to a term of imprisonment would mean he would lose his job.
“I’ve been bombarded with messages from his relatives from Israel, America and his girlfriend in Canada all begging me to do my best for him – all telling me about his good character. This man deserves to be released.”
Passing sentence JP Steve Barlow, said: “ The offence is so serious it does pass the custody because it was on an aircraft in mid-air. But we have heard the remorse and how sad you are to hear how you acted through being drunk. It’s not in your character.’’