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.

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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.

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