Commentary: Air Rage Relief

The next big air disaster could be caused by an out-of-control passenger. But the airlines refuse to face the problem.

 January 9, 2001: Flying from Chicago to Hong Kong, a man began spitting at passengers and screaming obscenities. He ripped a telephone from the hands of a flight attendant and threw a liquor bottle at a child…

October 20, 1995: On a flight from Buenos Aires to New York, an intoxicated investment banker who had been refused more wine responded by defecating on a food cart…

April 23, 2001: Twin sisters, flying from San Francisco to China, got into an argument, during which one threatened to open an airplane door. When the crew tried to stop the disturbance, the sisters punched one flight attendant in the nose, put another in a headlock, and struck a pilot in the head…

It’s bad enough that nasty incidents like these happen at all. Today, they’re actually common. The Air Transport Association estimates that the number of air rage incidents on U.S.-based carriers is about 4,000 each year.

But this alarming problem isn’t getting the attention it should. Airlines are not required to inform the Federal Aviation Administration of every instance of crew interference—the industry term for air rage—so they don’t. Consequently, the FAA’s statistics on air rage incidents include only those that lead to enforcement actions. The agency recorded 320 instances in 1997, 282 in 1998, and 310 in 1999. Because the true magnitude of air rage is concealed, policymakers cannot appreciate the seriousness of the problem. And since only the most dramatic incidents make it into the news, the public does not know just how widespread the problem really is.

Or how dangerous. According to a study that NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System conducted of 152 crew interference cases last year, in 40 percent of the instances, pilots either had to leave the cockpit to quell a disturbance or were distracted by a flight attendant seeking assistance. In a quarter of the cases, the incidents appeared to cause the pilots to commit such errors as flying too fast, going to the wrong altitude, or taxiing across runways reserved for other aircraft. And on at least five occasions last year, out-of-control passengers broke through locked cockpit doors.

The increase in air rage incidents probably stems in good part from the frustrations passengers are increasingly experiencing these days. Flights are overbooked, lines are long, and delays have become routine. Passengers are sardined into tiny seats with little legroom, overhead baggage compartments stuffed to the gills become battlegrounds, and the snacks and services passengers are offered are stripped to the bone. At the same time, on many flights the alcohol flows liberally, lowering inhibitions and impairing judgment. The combination of all of these factors has the potential to combust into a situation that threatens the lives of every passenger.

So what is the industry doing to prevent outbreaks of bad behavior? Mostly looking the other way.

For one thing, the airlines provide their flight attendants with little or no training for the problem, leaving them to figure out solutions at 30,000 feet. Last year, our organization, the Association of Flight Attendants, part of the AFL-CIO, surveyed our airline safety representatives and discovered that only three of the 17 believed that their flight attendants were adequately trained to deal with crew interference. And at the few airlines that do offer training, the lessons consist of a few pages in a manual or a ten-minute classroom presentation.

The result: Flight attendants are inadequately trained in even the fundamentals of conflict resolution, such as the most effective language to use to persuade an uncooperative passenger to obey safety instructions, or the best steps to take when a passenger appears to be intoxicated.

A few airlines—United, US Airways, Alaska Air, and Aloha—have come up with the idea of providing flight attendants with plastic handcuffs—but no proper training in how to use them. A flight attendant brandishing handcuffs would likely incite more violence in an already precarious situation. And a flight attendant with inadequate training and practice in how to use them could certainly precipitate a disaster.

Since 1996, AFA has been fighting to require that all flight attendants be trained in preventing and handling incidents of air rage. In response, the FAA took a small step in the right direction, issuing an advisory circular that suggests airlines establish policies and training for crew interference. But this was only a suggestion, and the airlines are free to ignore it. Our survey last year revealed that five out of 17 carriers still had no written policies on air rage.

Requiring appropriate flight attendant training is one part of a multi-faceted approach my organization advocates for dealing with the problem of air rage. We also believe that the FAA must direct the airlines to adopt zero-tolerance policies on crew interference so these incidents do not go unpunished. In addition, the agency must require airlines to report all incidents, and must enter every incident in a national database. With full reporting of the types, severity, and number of problems, airlines can provide realistic, hands-on training targeted at the most common and dangerous types of incidents.

Since alcohol is a factor in many air rage incidents, airlines must take over-consumption seriously and adopt responsible policies. Gate agents must be trained to recognize signs of intoxication and prevent drunk passengers from boarding. Airlines should end the practice of serving alcohol before takeoff, and should never use free alcohol as a way to compensate passengers for delays.

Other strategies, such as deducting frequent flier miles from passengers who become unruly, may not quell the inappropriate behavior up front, but could prevent repeat offenders from terrorizing more flights.

While these ideas may seem like common sense, the airlines take the position “The paying passenger is always right.”

It all comes down to money. One big reason airlines are in no hurry to give their flight attendants decent training in air rage management is the time and money such training would entail. And of course, the overbooking, cramped conditions, and stripped-down in-flight amenities and services are obvious results of the airlines’ determination to squeeze the maximum revenue out of every flight. Finally, airlines probably fear that taking a strong public stand against crew interference could cost them passengers, since some may interpret such a message as a sign that air travel is potentially dangerous.

But a strong stand must be taken. Both the airlines and the FAA need to get the word out that air rage is a felony, one with serious consequences. Just as security checkpoints display posters that warn against joking about terrorist acts, airlines need to provide passengers with written warnings about crew interference and the penalties against it; that can be done via safety cards in seat pockets, on ticket jackets, in in-flight magazines, and on posters and other displays in airports, especially situated near the bars, where some passengers spend time during delays and layovers. And the preflight safety briefing should include a warning to passengers that crew member interference is a crime.

On the ground, law enforcement officers must have a clear knowledge of how to handle unruly passengers once a flight is over. Confusion over jurisdictional issues has resulted in some perpetrators of air rage walking away free upon landing. A federal law was passed in April of last year authorizing a program to allow local law enforcement officials to be federally deputized to assist in these situations. But implementation has been spotty. Jurisdictional problems are also common on international flights. AFA is committed to addressing this issue on an international level, working with governing bodies like the International Civil Aviation Organization.

In April of last year, the Congress increased the civil penalty for interference with a flight crew. Air rage is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, a $10,000 fine, and a civil penalty of up to $25,000. But imposing penalties after the fact is not enough. We must deter these acts, making everyone aware that the policy of both the airlines and the government is zero tolerance.

Take the example of a U.S. magistrate in New Mexico, who said as he arraigned a passenger accused of air rage, “You have absolutely no right to endanger anyone on an airplane.” The judge ordered the passenger to take a bus back to his home state of Florida to await his trial, adding, “…if you cause a ruckus on the bus, they’ll put you out in the desert.”

We need more judges like him. And we need more regulations to prevent air rage in the first place.

Patricia Friend is the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, the world's largest flight attendant union.

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