BOSTON — At 30,000 feet above the Atlantic, on a Northwest Airlines London to Minneapolis flight last December, 18 inebriated British passengers engaged in a food fight. They pelted peanuts at flight attendants and encouraged their children to steal alcohol from the beverage carts.
The captain had to leave the cockpit and restrain one of the rowdy bunch with handcuffs. Three US Olympic wrestlers literally sat on others to subdue them.
Unfortunately, this sky-high tag-team match was not an isolated incident. During 1996, airline problems with unruly passengers included everything from a Saudi princess scratching a TWA flight attendant to a first-class passenger who whacked a USAir stewardess so hard that she landed two rows deep in coach.
With the number of such problems increasing, the Federal Aviation Administration felt compelled to issue an advisory about belligerent passengers last month. The circular covers everything from how to deal with such situations to how to report them to the FBI.
"We will not tolerate any interference with the vital safety functions performed by crew members," said FAA acting administrator Linda Hall Daschle.
One reason the FAA acted when it did was the advent of the holiday season. The season to be jolly can turn ugly - particularly 30,000 to 35,000 feet above Earth when passengers misbehave.
With many people who believe there's no place like home for the holidays, most flights are packed. Passengers are scrunched in between carry-on luggage and shopping bags bearing gifts. Delays occur regularly - due to foul weather, overbooking, or overworked flight crews. And during delays, many passengers while away hours in airport bars.
"It gets worse during the holidays," says Gail Scott of America West, who has been a flight attendant for 11 years. "If a person has five carry-on bags, and the person behind him does, it causes a problem. There's limited space. And the gate agents aren't able to thoroughly screen passengers for alcohol and carry-on bags."
The number of reported incidents involving unruly passengers has increased sharply since the early 1990s.
Approximately 174 such incidents were reported to the Federal Aviation Administration last year. The number was slightly higher - 194 - in 1994, but in 1993 it was only 96.
The full extent of the problem is hard to gauge, however. A spokeswoman for the FAA says many incidents go unreported - even though they may pose a danger to the flight crew and the flight itself. And Jill Gallagher, spokeswoman for the 39,000-strong Association of Flight Attendants, says the "numbers are sketchy."
Yet many airline professionals - including both the FAA and the Association of Flight Attendants - agree that something needs to be done about this problem. Otherwise it may be just a matter of time before an angry or intoxicated passenger causes a serious accident.
The majority of incidents involve alcohol, says Ms. Gallagher. Gate agents are prohibited by the FAA from inplaning passengers who appear intoxicated. And flight attendants are not permitted to serve alcohol to passengers on board the plane if they appear intoxicated. But that leaves a lot up to personal judgment, the flight attendants say.
And their judgment is far from infallible. Ms. Scott of America West says she made two recent judgment calls - one good, one not. She says she recently refused to serve one man in first class any more alcohol because he became "obnoxious." The woman sitting next to him thanked Scott. But Scott says she also served somebody "too much on [a] Wednesday trip." He apparently was fine while in the plane, but "made a big scene in the terminal."
Scott says it is very difficult to determine when someone's had too much to drink. She herself has been struck by female passengers on two occasions.
Sheri Albert, a flight attendant who has worked for TWA for 26 years, was the slapped party in the incident involving the Saudi princess earlier this year. She says the princess spent more than "three hours in our Ambassador's Club in Paris, and became inebriated. But they put her on the plane because they wanted to get rid of her."
The princess caused so much trouble - between shouting obscenities, chasing Ms. Albert throughout the plane, and threatening to have her killed - that the pilot had to leave the cockpit four times during the flight. He radioed ahead to Boston and had the police meet the plane. The princess was arrested and later fined $500 and put on a six-month probation - to serve in her own country.
Albert says this points to a problem of reporting incidents. The airlines must worry about the safety of flights, but they also must keep customers happy.
"My company sold me down the river," Albert says. "The Saudis threatened the company's landing rights in Riyadh, so the company cut a deal with them in court."
TWA has a different opinion, however. Spokesman John McDonald says TWA fully supported the government's prosecutorial efforts in this case, as it does in all cases where flight attendants are assaulted by passengers. Mr. McDonald says that the princess could have been granted diplomatic immunity, but because of TWA's negotiations, she ended having "her day in court."
Flight attendant Victoria Komura of USAir says she had a similar experience after a businessman in first class on a Charlotte-to-Columbus shuttle hit her on the backside and sent her flying back into coach. Ms. Komura says her company told her "you're on your own." She says they "harassed and threatened me," and she had to hire a prominent Washington attorney herself to sue the man who hit her.
A USAir spokesman didn't recall Komura's incident, but says that with 5,000 flights per day, the number of reported incidents is "small." He says that USAir deals with each "on a case by case basis. We do not tolerate unruly passengers, and we will take appropriate action."
Ms. Scott has had a somewhat different experience in regard to company support. The first time she was harassed - when a woman punched her in the face - the company did not press charges. Scott sued in civil court and obtained an out-of-court settlement. The last time - when she was struck by an inebriated woman - the company pressed charges and offered to help Scott in a civil suit.
All three flight attendants say that although most passengers are extremely nice and altercations rare, they appreciate the FAA's new guidelines. But all three say the alcohol rules are still too murky and that they are not trained to deal with physical attacks. That, they say, might be an appropriate part of flight attendants' training.