Protecting travelers from acts of 'air rage'

How airlines, lawmakers, and passenger-rights groups combat dangerous

Flight attendant Rene Sheffer has been an authority on "air rage" - airline-passenger disruption or violence in flight - ever since a December 1997 encounter at 35,000 feet.

The passenger in question seemed nice enough at the start of the US Airways flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore, she says. But somewhere in mid-flight, he began behaving erratically. He warned the plane would crash. Then he started moving toward the cockpit.

Ms. Sheffer, a nurse before she started her 14-year career with the airlines, drew on all her training to try to calm the man and get him back into his seat. But he became physically violent, throwing her over three rows of seats. She worked with two of her male colleagues - another flight attendant and an off-duty pilot - to restrain him physically and secure him for the flight's duration. The man later admitted he had taken LSD.

Had he succeeded in storming the cabin, he might have brought down the Boeing 757 with all 166 people aboard. Had that happened, Sheffer says, "more people would have died than in the Oklahoma City bombing."

Air rage may be one of those problems that seems to be getting worse mainly because it's finally being addressed. But the potential seriousness of recent incidents like the one involving Sheffer have government regulators and the airline industry - despite occasional tensions - jointly taking note.

Canada's transport ministry, called Transport Canada, is now launching a campaign intended to inform the traveling public that verbal or physical abuse of airline staff will not be tolerated.

Denise Hill, a representative of the Canadian flight attendants' union and a member of Transport Canada's working group on disruptive passengers, says: "We're making it clear that this is happening, and that it's not going to be treated lightly."

In the past, she says, there's been a tendency to "plea-bargain away" the seriousness of abuse and assaults against flight crews. The campaign, to be launched next month, will involve clearly posted signs in airports, and printed reminders in passengers' ticket envelopes.

Britain is another leader on this issue, acting forcefully to prosecute cases of inflight assault. Since April, British airlines have been systematically logging all incidents reported by flight crews.

Britain has also formed a working group on disruptive passengers, with representatives from several government ministries. And British Airways has had in place since last year a "yellow card" system - mirroring the soccer warning - that warns offending passengers they could face charges unless they alter their behavior.

American moves, too

In the United States, the House of Representatives has held hearings on in-flight violence. Legislation has been introduced into the Senate to increase fines for those disruptive passengers and to make it easier to arrest in-flight offenders.

New passenger-rights guarantees requiring airlines to be forthcoming with information about overbooking and delays are also in the works. Major US airlines reportedly postponed the release of a draft 12-point plan earlier this month that could ultimately commit airlines to paying closer attention to passenger needs, especially during long, on-aircraft delays.

Around the world, air rage has gone from being a problem the airlines don't want to talk about, in part out of concern about driving away revenue, to one on which several are introducing "zero-tolerance" policies, including support for flight attendants who press charges against passengers: British Airways, British Midland, Canadian Airlines, Air Canada, KLM, Cathay Pacific, Swissair, and some charter carriers are doing so.

"I'm very attracted to the level of commitment that the airlines have been demonstrating in dealing with this issue," says Jim Marriott, Transport Canada's director of security policy and legislation.

Since the assault against Sheffer, she and her husband have launched the Skyrage Foundation to fight air rage worldwide. "It was time to make noise so I decided to make it," says Michael Sheffer. Through his Web site (www.skyrage.org) and e-mail, he's been in touch with people "from New York to California, in South Africa, the UK, France, Belgium, Australia, Canada."

One of the Sheffers' key proposals: a blood-alcohol limit for air passengers. Similarly, air-safety advocates in Britain have suggested that travelers who appear intoxicated be required to pass a Breathalyzer test before boarding.

How real an issue?

No one who has flown recently would have trouble coming up with a list of reasons passengers might well become agitated during airline trips: alcohol, frustration over increasingly widespread smoking bans, high-density seating, and delays. Accounts of air rage may capture public attention because they represent what may be people's fears about the effects of stress.

But Angela Dahlberg, an airline consultant based in Calgary, Alberta, says that any statistics on air rage should be kept in perspective.

The airlines call serious incidents very rare, especially on regularly scheduled airlines. British carriers, for example, transported 85 million passengers in 1998, with only about 100 extreme cases of unruly passengers reported.

But definitions differ widely. Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, a frequent traveler and a sponsor of a bill on air rage, says, "There are hundreds, I think we can say thousands, of these incidents every year.... It's a real serious problem."

One figure frequently cited and ascribed to the International Air Transport Association is "a 400 percent increase in incidents of air rage since 1995." But spokesman Tim Goodyear in Geneva says that figure was merely presented at an IATA conference and "is not an IATA statistic."

Hence the importance of the British airlines' database. Says Capt. Mike Vivian, head of flight operations for Britain's Civil Aviation Authority, "We take incidents of 'air rage' extremely seriously and are working with government and the industry to attack the problem. This new database will help us to provide that information."

Conflicts hinder enforcement

In the battle against air rage, both airline flight crews and airline management are on the same side. But the crews are on the front lines and the "bean counters" aren't. Transport Canada's Mr. Marriott acknowledges that both "may not have exactly the same incentives" to deal with the problem.

Cynthia Kain, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington, is more blunt: "The more carriers have to pay money to divert planes [to deplane unruly passengers] the sooner they will put in policies that really make a difference."

Ms. Dahlberg sees the airlines' problems with unruly passengers as rooted in the fundamental conflict between the need to keep up clockwork "production" under stringent operating regulations while also paying attention to the service aspects of the work.

There is also a failure to understand the mindset of passengers, she suggests. However mobile people in many cultures have become, research indicates that a majority of the traveling public has some trepidation about flying, she says.

But Dahlberg faults the airlines for their "authoritarian" approach, which she says emphasizes "safety" - as defined by regulators - at the expense of service. "There doesn't have to be a conflict between safety and service."

Airlines need to realize, she adds, that with all the stresses of travel, "when people come on board a plane, they are indirectly crying for nurturing, caring." She would like to see airlines approach air rage through more of a "know your customer" effort, and less of a "crime and punishment" model.

Still, in-flight violence is a criminal matter and making it easier to prosecute those who assault crews is widely seen as key. In the US, aviation is an area of federal jurisdiction. Arrests have had to be made by a federal agent from Customs, Immigration, or the Secret Service. Senator Reid's bill - the Safe and Friendly Skies Bill of 1999 - would deputize local law-enforcement officials to make such arrests.

Internationally, there has been a similar problem: Local gendarmes are not always able to arrest a troublemaker who has just landed in a foreign-flag aircraft. Canada, the US, Australia, and most recently Britain are among countries that have corrected this problem with legislation.

*Alexander MacLeod contributed to this report from London.

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