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Season Turns Ugly When Air Travelers Become Unruly

By Faye BowersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 27, 1996


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.

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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.