A drunken airline passenger who started a fire at 33,000ft by discarding a burning cigarette end had his jail sentence more than doubled yesterday to nine and a half years.

Former soldier John Cox, 46, threw the cigarette butt in a toilet bin when on a Monarch flight from Birmingham to Sharm el-Sheikh in August 2015.

An hour earlier, panic had broken out on the aircraft when there was a similar unrelated toilet blaze, the Court of Appeal in London was told.

Cabin crew had already used up two of the four extinguishers on board and additional water fighting the first fire, Lady Justice Sharp said.

The pilot feared the crew would be unable to quell the second blaze, started by Cox, if it took hold.

After calling mayday, he had to put the aircraft into a sharp descent to stage an emergency landing.

By luck a fire safety expert was on board, who helped crew members tackle the fire and bring it under control, the Times reported.

Cox was belligerent and aggressive when confronted, but pleaded guilty to reckless arson at Birmingham crown court in March.

Cox, of Kidderminster, was originally jailed for four and a half years.

However, the sentence was challenged in the Court of Appeal, where the solicitor general, Robert Buckland, QC, criticised the punishment as far too lenient.

Lady Justice Sharp agreed and increased the term.

“The potential for causing disaster here was plain and obvious,” she told the court. “The sentence passed was unduly lenient; his offence called for a deterrent sentence and condign punishment.”

Cox, a “hard-working family man” of previous good character, was under stress at the time due to the break-up of his marriage. He had worked for Royal Mail and served nine years in the army.

He had startted drinking in the airport departure lounge and kept topping up while in the air.

He did not intend to start a fire but the judge said that throwing a cigarette into the bin at 33,000ft “came very close to deliberate fire-setting”.

Several of the crew reported being traumatised and witnesses spoke of the crew weeping and of screaming adults and children.

One passenger described the incident as “absolutely terrifying – everyone was panicking. When I think about it even now I feel sick.”

Francis FitzGibbon, QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said that the revised sentence was exactly in line with guidance.