AN air-rage passenger was facing jail and a lifetime flying ban last night after a fight at 33,000ft.

Fifty-three-year-old Stephen Robinson assaulted a steward who asked him to put out a cigarette on the flight from Turkey to Newcastle.

The steward needed £2,000-worth of dental treatment after the air-rage incident - and the plane was forced to land at Frankfurt.

Robinson, from Darlington, faces jail and being banned from the skies for good.

He pleaded guilty yesterday at Newcastle Crown Court to assault and endangering the safety of an aircraft.

Last night, Robinson claimed the trouble began with a simple argument over tea, coffee, and orange juice. "It was a storm in a teacup," he said.

Robinson's week-long holiday to Turkey started badly when he spent two days in hospital with an abscess on his buttock. Days later, he lost his only credit card.

But the holiday got worse when he tried to buy soft drinks on the flight home.

"I tried to buy a tea, coffee, Pepsi, and orange juice on a Binns store card," Robinson told The Northern Echo.

"When the card didn't work, they took the drinks back, but left the orange. When they came back to collect the glasses, I threw the plastic cup at him. I don't know why.

"A bit later, I lit a rolled-up cigarette. I was on medication from the hospital and I wasn't thinking straight.

"They came over with a glass of water and I put it straight out."

Half an hour later, Robinson, who had moved onto his haunches because of his injury, then tried to stretch his legs.

"I jumped from my seat by the window into the aisle," he said.

"The steward told me to sit down because I was causing a disturbance.

"I told him I was entitled to walk around. The safety video they show at the start of the flight said we could.

"I knocked him accidentally and then another passenger ripped my head back from behind and grabbed it. There was a struggle.

"It was said I caught the steward with my elbow, but I can't remember. I admit it might have happened, but I was still on medication.

"I was handcuffed and taken to the front, which was only four rows away."

Robinson was taken to a German police station and breathalysed, before being released after it showed he was sober.

He came home by coach two days later, after borrowing money from the airport's travellers' aid organisation. He later complained to the Citizen's Advice Bureau, Trading Standards, and the Association of British Travel Agents.

He was arrested by Northumbria Police eight months after the incident, which happened in March last year.

"It was blown out of proportion," said Robinson. "But it was not the best holiday I've been on."

Judge Esmond Faulks told Robinson his sentence could include a ban from planes, similar to a football banning order.

"He is the sort of person, I think, who should never go on an aircraft again," he said.

Tim Parkin, prosecuting, had earlier told the court the assault was terrifying. "His plea is on the basis he was endangering the passengers rather than the plane itself," Mr Parkin said.

"This is not a case where he was trying to interfere with emergency doors or making an attack on the pilot - but it was clearly an utterly terrifying situation for all people on that plane.

"He admits the assault on the basis of reckless behaviour during the course of his restraint, when an unfortunate steward received injuries which required £2,000-worth of dental work to repair."

A spokesman for Thomas Cook, which Robinson travelled with, said: "We operate a zero tolerance policy towards disruption and aggressive behaviour to staff and customers onboard our aircraft.

"We are pleased with today's verdict, and Thomas Cook will always look to press charges against such behaviour."

James Hotson, of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), said the maximum penalty for air rage was five years' imprisonment.

"Safety is the CAA's number one priority and anything that endangers an aircraft, including air-rage incidents, is taken extremely seriously," Mr Hotson said.

"It is an offence to use violent or abusive language or behaviour, and also to interfere with a member of cabin crew while they are undertaking their duties.

"In July 2003, the Aviation Offences Act increased the maximum penalty for endangering the safety of an aircraft from two years to five years in prison."

Robinson, a steel worker from Hopetown Lane, Darlington, will be sentenced at Newcastle Crown Court on Friday, September 28. He was released on bail.

* A man who boarded two planes carrying a knife has been charged with two offences. The Sunderland man, who is in his 40s, was arrested at Durham Tees Valley Airport on Monday after a flick-knife was found in his hand luggage and four more in his checked-in bags.

He was yesterday charged with possession of a prohibited article on a plane, and with possession of prohibited articles in his luggage.

He was bailed to appear before Darlington magistrates on September 20.