OUT OF THE BLUE
Coffee, tea or melee? Booze turning friendly skies unruly
By Elliott Hester
my 16-year career as a flight attendant, I've been caught in the
middle of "air rage" incidents that were never mentioned
in the job description. I once soothed an antagonistic passenger
who threatened to punch me in the face. I confronted an unruly traveler
who challenged me to throw him out the airplane window. I've pointed
to pugnacious passengers as police officers boarded the airplane.
As is the case with most in-flight transgressions, these were attributed
to three factors: alcohol, liquor and booze.
The Skyrage Foundation, a watchdog organization aimed at ending
in-flight violence, is perhaps the most comprehensive source for
information about air rage. It's Web site (www.skyrage.org) posts
links to news articles that prove alcohol and flying don't mix.
Here's a sample of incidents from one horrendous week in April:
April 18: Steven Handy was sentenced to four years in jail for his
actions on an Oct. 1998 British Airtours flight from London to Malaga,
Spain. Handy was so drunk he claims he can't remember what happened.
But flight attendant Fiona Weir will never forget. After being told
that Spanish police were waiting to arrest him upon landing, the
40-year-old Briton smashed a broken vodka bottle into her face.
She no longer works for Airtours and is physically scarred for life.
April 19: A United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Shanghai,
China, diverted to Anchorage after 22-year-old American twins Cynthia
and Crystal Mikula began fighting. When crew members tried to break
up the drunken altercation, the identical sisters, who were en route
to a modeling competition, allegedly spat on, punched and choked
several crew members. Their actions were captured on home video
and aired on Dateline NBC. They could face 20 years in prison and
fines of up to $250,000.
April 21: Guitarist Peter Buck of the pop band R.E.M. was arrested
and charged with being drunk on an aircraft, causing criminal damage
to British Airways Flight 48 from Seattle to London, and two counts
of assaulting cabin crew. He was released on bond, but must return
for a British court hearing on June 18.
April 25: Three hours into an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Los
Angeles, Alexandre Stolerman, 52, allegedly got drunk, grabbed one
passenger by the throat and pushed a lighted cigarette into the
face of another. The Russian was arrested on a federal charge of
interfering with a flight crew.
April 25: After 17-year-old Garin Mcgeough flew into a drunken rage,
his Frankfurt-bound Singapore Airlines flight diverted to New Delhi,
India. The Australian teenager swore at cabin crew and kicked the
aircraft window because he was refused more liquor. Seven people,
including Mcgeough, were injured in the melee. He's currently serving
two months in a Singapore prison.
Over the years, hundreds of similar incidents have darkened the
friendly skies. Though the FAA tallied 266 "disruptive passengers"
in 2000, the Air Transport Association (a trade organization for
U.S. airlines) believes more than 5,000 incidents occurred during
the same year. Many were caused by inebriated passengers.
The connection between booze and bad behavior is so glaringly obvious,
it's difficult to understand why airlines continue to dispense it.
Liquor flows freely in first class, and in the main cabin on most
international flights. It's for sale on domestic flights departing
morning, noon and night. Herein lies the paradox. Although airlines
have established "zero tolerance" policies toward air
rage, the most heinous in-flight acts are often fueled by the liquor
we provide. Remember Gerard Finneran? Intoxicated and out of control
on a United Airlines flight from Buenos Aires to New York on Oct.
20, 1995, the investment banker pulled down his pants and defecated
on a first-class serving cart.
Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action
Project (founded in 1971 by Ralph Nader), asked the FAA to impose
a three-drink limit except on very long flights. "There's a
high correlation between excessive consumption of alcohol and disruptive
passengers," he says. łA whistle blower from the FAA came to
us and said he was demoted because he tried to make alcohol an issue.˛
Mr. Hudson's "whistle blower" admission will no doubt
raise a few eyebrows. But I'm not sure his three-drink limit will
work. Though I've delivered multiple cocktails to passengers who
remained amicable and calm, one memorable traveler became pugnacious
after downing a single beer. Even if a drink limit is instituted,
it'll be difficult to monitor consumption on large aircraft. With
so many passengers and crew, someone can order two drinks from six
different attendants and none will be the wiser.
Flying in a commercial airplane bears one essential difference to
all other social gatherings. It's the only time the public is unable
to get help from police or security personnel. If someone goes berserk
on a cruise ship, trained security officers will toss him in the
brig. If a drunk wreaks havoc in an urban restaurant, a dozen diners
can whip out their cell phones and summon police. But at 30,000
feet you can't dial 911. And flight attendants, unlike our counterparts
on a cruise ship, don't have the luxury of on-board security officers.|
Because disruptive behavior happens so rarely relative to the astronomical
number of commercial flights, the costly implementation of in-flight
security is unlikely. As always, a group of able-bodied passengers
and crew will come to the rescue during alcohol-inspired outbursts.
Truth be told, the cessation of alcohol service may be the only
way to curb in-flight transgressions. But there's one tragic flaw
in this concept. Since the first commercial airplanes leapt into
the wild blue yonder, legions of fearful flyers have relied on booze
to calm their frazzled nerves. Who knows what new demons will be
unleashed should the liquor cart stop rolling down the aisle.