Airline response to rise in unruliness: 'Cuff 'em'

Swissair will 'arm' its flight crews with calming words and plastic handcuffs.

Her smile may be friendly, and her manner polite. But if she needed to, the flight attendant welcoming you aboard your plane this holiday season could probably have you in handcuffs in less time than it takes to say "disruptive passenger training."

Facing a continuing increase in incidents of "air rage," airlines around the world are taking a tougher line against abusive passengers in the runup to what is expected to be the busiest holiday air travel season ever. And if talking doesn't calm them down, flight attendants are being taught to tie them up.

"This is not something we want to apply on a regular basis," says Erwin Schaerer, a spokesman for Swissair, which will be giving plastic handcuffs to its cabin staff next month. "It is a last resort if nothing else works. But it is a security measure, because things can get dangerous."

Four people have died in air-rage incidents over the past two years - three of them the culprits themselves - including a young man on a Southwest Airlines flight last August who was suffocated by fellow passengers subduing him after he tried to kick down the cockpit door.

This has focused the airlines on the problem, says Terry Riley, a psychologist who offers training programs to cabin crews, teaching them how to calm down angry passengers. "The airlines have told me they've got money in their budgets to do training," he says. "Recent events have scared them, and they are in the mood again."

"The industry is acknowledging that the problem exists, and some airlines are beginning to tackle it," adds Mike Sheffer, who founded the Skyrage Foundation three years ago after his wife, a flight attendant with USAirways, was badly beaten up by a berserk passenger.

Crackdown on misbehavior

Governments are getting tougher on airborne misbehavior, too, as a passenger on a domestic flight in Saudi Arabia found earlier this month. He was sentenced to be flogged 20 lashes for answering his mobile phone during a flight.

Elsewhere, punishments are less physical, but growing steeper. President Clinton signed a law last April that increases fines for air ragers to $25,000, up from $1,100; the British Parliament last year enacted a bill that makes "acting in a disruptive manner" aboard an aircraft an offense. Three courts near Britain's major airports regularly hear cases, and commonly hand down two-year prison sentences.

Incidents of air rage are on the rise, airline officials agree. Reports of passengers abusing cabin staff on US flights rose from 66 to 534 between 1997 and 1999, according to the London-based International Transport Workers' Federation.

The phenomenon has reached such a scale that the airport at Bangor, Maine - the last airfield in the United States at which a jetliner can put down before crossing the Atlantic - has begun marketing itself quietly as a convenient place to which aircraft can divert if they want to disembark a troublesome passenger.

Many experts put the problem down to increasing stress in peoples' lives, which has led to growing violence in supermarkets and in traffic, not just aloft. When passengers find themselves delayed, or assigned a seat they don't like, or cramped, "manners go out of the window," says Mr. Sheffer.

"Some people check their common sense along with their baggage," he adds. "They think they can behave badly and get away with it."

Contributing factors

Alcohol is clearly a major contributing factor, airline officials say, with drunks accounting for about half the 1,205 incidents of disruptive passenger behavior that British airlines reported to the Civil Aviation Authority in the 12 months ending March 2000.

Smoking, or the desire to smoke, were factors in 37 percent of the incidents, the CAA report found, with some passengers endangering aircraft by smoking in the toilets or disconnecting the fire alarms there.

"I don't see much improvement to be made in the near future" except crew training, says Dr. Riley. "As more people fly, they are more crowded, and there is more stress on them. No airline is cutting down on the drinks they offer, and banning smoking has not helped the situation."

So a growing number of airlines are giving their cabin crews plastic handcuffs, to be used at the captain's discretion, and teaching them how to physically subdue a passenger enough to get the cuffs on. Delta, United, American, and Northwest are among the US airlines to use them.

Training for flight attendants

But flight attendants are taught that physical restraint is a last resort, and more of them are being trained to spot and defuse potentially violent incidents before they happen. Swissair, Delta, and British Airways, for example, all say they have stepped up their psychological training for cabin crew.

In 1998, British Airways introduced a "yellow card" system, in which troublesome passengers are handed a letter warning them that if they continue to disobey the crew's instructions, the captain may radio ahead to ask the police to meet the flight.

This seems to help: BA reported a 150 percent drop in incidents in the year after the warnings started.

Other airlines are trying to spot potential troublemakers long before they get on the plane. "We are trying to be proactive," explains Mike Brooks, the head of corporate security at Delta, who was hired recently to deal specifically with air rage. "We try to prevent incidents before they get on board" by training check-in and ticketing agents to be on the lookout for aggressive, rude, loudmouthed or drunk passengers.

But computer software to identify previous troublemakers on a flight's passenger manifest is not selling, says British businessman David Durnall, who has developed such a program but not managed to sell it to any airline.

"At the end of the day, it's an economic decision," Mr. Durnall says. "Airlines are saying 'this is how much it costs to divert an aircraft, and this is how much the software costs; we'll live with diversion.' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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