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.

Air & Space Magazine

 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.

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