Since the terrible events of September 11 the behaviour of passengers on airplanes has come under the microscope. The International Civil Aviation Organisation has been working on legislation that would permit authorities to prosecute disruptive passengers anywhere in the world. The introduction of ‘air marshals’ on flights and a ban on alcohol are also being considered.
A sleepless night of anxiety, a rush to finish packing bags, a struggle through terrible traffic to get to the airport on time, an overcrowded terminal, queuing at check-in with heavy bags, under scrutiny at customs, trouble finding the correct departure gate, awkward boarding in narrow spaces, worry about safety, cramped seating, poor air quality, nowhere to escape to – is it any wonder people don’t always behave normally when flying?
The term air rage has followed road rage into our everyday vocabulary in the last decade or so. It’s an abused term, employed to cover everything from loud football supporters to armed hijackers. The phenomenon we now know as air rage, while unpremeditated, is not necessarily rage, but disruptive behaviour of any sort on a flight that reaches anti-social or dangerous proportions.
The problem does not seem to be widespread. It is mostly associated with long haul flights and the consumption of excessive alcohol. Aer Lingus have said recently that they experience only about a dozen cases a year. Of five frequent international fliers consulted for the purposes of this article not one had witnessed an instance of air rage. Nonetheless, by all accounts, being stuck on a plane at 35,000 feet above ground when someone does lose control of themselves is certainly distressing and can be frightening, and because of the delicate circumstances the possibility of it happening needs to be taken very seriously. We need to know that airlines are doing everything they can to prevent instances occurring, and to train their staff to be able to handle those that do break out.
In January 1999 twelve passengers - six men and six women from Ireland and south London - were ordered off an Airtours charter en route to Jamaica after having been so unruly that the pilot had to divert to ensure the safety of the flight. They said they were merely enjoying a boozy “sing song”, and yet at one stage eight crewmembers were involved in trying to pacify them.
In another case a British Airways Boeing 747 had to make an unscheduled landing after a married couple started punching each other in the economy class cabin.
Husband and wife were detained by police when the jet touched down at Chicago's O'Hare airport.
There have been reports of a man putting his hands around the throat of a flight attendant because she spilled a drink on him, another passenger removing his pants and simulating sex with the back of his own seat, and an infamous one involving a banker who assaulted an attendant and then defecated on a first-class food cart.
In April last year, REM guitarist Peter Buck was charged in England with criminal damage, being drunk on an aircraft, two counts of common assault and one public order offence following an incident on a British Airways flight. The crew reported that Mr. Buck, drunk, had ripped up a written warning from the captain, thrown yogurt at a member of staff, pulled on another’s tie and twisted the arm of a female cabin crew member.
Why, then, are otherwise quite sane people taking such irrational actions and failing to practise normal levels of self-restraint? Well, as one psychologist has put it, human beings are just not designed to be transported in cramped spaces for extended periods of time. Professor of aerospace psychology, Helen Muir, told the Guardian newspaper that “If you put mice in the same crowded environment that we put passengers, they’d eat each other.”
According to the Federal Air Surgeon's Medical Bulletin it is essential for the industry to understand that there is an aeromedical basis for ‘air rage’. For a start, cabin air is less humid and has lower levels of oxygen than normal air (‘hypoxia’). This has been shown to lead to dehydration. Alcohol consumption and a decreased overall fluid intake exacerbate the dehydration. Add dehydration and hypoxia to cramped conditions, tiredness, constant invasion of privacy, and you have a potentially volatile situation. A spokesperson for Aer Lingus cabin crew adds that it is only certain types of people who are significantly affected by these abnormal conditions.
The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) say that a number of factors contribute directly to what is sometimes called Disruptive Passenger Syndrome:
- Excess alcohol
- More people flying
- Oversold flights
- Crowded planes
- Small seats
- Excessive and oversized hand luggage
- Frequent delays and cancellations
- Inconsistent policies across the industry leading to confusion among passengers
Clearly most of these factors are the airlines’ responsibility. Even the problem of excessive hand luggage can be partly put down to the lack of confidence people have in their checked-in luggage arriving safely and on time. And while excess alcohol is not easy for airlines to monitor there are measures that can be taken to minimise the trouble caused.
Some commentators say that another contributing factor is the discrepancy between the high expectations, bolstered by advertising, that people have of the flying experience, which once upon a time was nothing but glamorous, and the reality of today’s cost cutting practices.
So, what are airlines doing about it? Research from the International Transport Workers Federation showed that before September 11:
- Only half of airlines had policies to tackle the growing problem of air rage
- Two-thirds of airlines did not provide any training for cabin crew in dealing with disruptive passengers
- Fewer than one in five provided any disruptive passenger training for ground staff - key personnel in preventing incidents
- Less than half of the airlines surveyed carried equipment for restraining passengers in cases of extreme violence or aggression
(Source: World Airline News)
The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) that regulates the industry ensures that Irish airlines do train their staff properly, and while there is no specific course for handling disruptive passengers, the IAA has approved the content of the more general training that cabin crew receive which covers unruly behaviour. A strong emphasis is put on defusing situations, according to their spokesperson.
Aer Lingus ……[Need their comments]
A spokesperson for cabin crew at Aer Lingus is confident that the training is adequate, and even that staff have an innate ability to spot potentially troublesome passengers. “If we have somebody coming on board with drink on them, we would have the ground staff speak to them and explain that they will not be served and if they have a difficulty with that they get off right now. But people with drink are not necessarily the disruptive passengers. Disruptive passengers are a whole different breed to the loud drunk of old. It’s the levels of naked aggression that people are experiencing aboard that have changed dramatically over the last ten years. But we do have a system of restraining passengers, and we are taught in hand-cuff training. And it has successfully worked, by the smallest person of the biggest man, down and handcuffed in seconds.”
Willie Butler of of the pilot’s association stresses that since September 11 things have changed dramatically right across the board. If previously a disruption was a matter of on-board passenger security it is now potentially a global security issue. Any ‘incidents’ on board airplanes are being taken with absolute seriousness, the relevant airport security is immediately informed, and there may even be escort planes called in by the military in the US.
“You're not allowed to form a queue to wait for the bathroom, let alone shout abuse or demand more drink,” is how one Irish commentator living in the US put it. But since the terrorist attacks passengers may face new dangers from zero-tolerant fellow travelers who could see any unusual behaviour during flights as a threat to their safety. This may lead to a whole new cycle of aggressive behaviour aboard flights.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has been developing model legislation that would criminalize disruptive behaviour and is planning to urge governments all around the world to adopt the bill. The International Transport Workers Federation says that, so that it will be effective immediately upon signing, the legislation needs to be given international treaty status rather than being just a model for states to adopt.
In relation to Ireland, Minister O'Rourke has agreed in principle to sign up to the new legislation.
In the meantime, the National Civil Aviation Security Committee, made up of representatives from the airlines, Aer Rianta, and the Department of Public Enterprise, is not considering the possibility of banning alcohol on flights, arguing that the incidence of air rage is too negligible to deprive passengers the pleasure of an in-flight drink.
Finally, here’s some advice on the matter:
- Do not confront aggressive behaviour yourself. Alert the cabin crew. They are trained to deal with these situations.
- Do not call the crew over. Instead, leave your seat and discreetly draw the problem to their attention.
- Ask to be moved. If there are no seats available, try to distance yourself psychologically.
If you think you could be susceptible to air rage yourself, take these steps:
- Insulate yourself from possible aggravations by bringing along reading material or listening to soothing music on a Walkman.
- Smokers should prepare for nonsmoking flights by bringing along nicotine chewing gum.
- Do not take tranquillisers or sleeping pills to cope with stress of flying. Never combine medication and alcohol.
(Source: Business Traveller International)