Air Rage Part 1

“Now that we have plumbed the depths of passenger dissatisfaction,” says reader Seth McDowell, with respect to this column’s recently concluded airline satisfaction survey, “Why don’t we turn the equation around, with examples of the worst behavior by passengers?”

McDowell wasn’t the only one to raise this obvious corollary. “Does it ever occur to you,” asks Steven Flowers from West Hollywood, California, “that passengers sometimes have crappy attitudes?” Flowers goes on to tell the story of how, by virtue of remaining calm and patient after his bags were lost by TWA, he received a thank-you note from the airline’s ground staff.

Any audit of airline quality has to delve a little deeper than smiles and manners, but the point is well taken and shouldn’t be ignored. Last week’s story of the urine soaked seat aboard China Airlines, as an example, doesn’t just raise the question of why the mess hadn’t been cleaned, but how it got there in the first place. Abuse of airline workers and property is well documented, and it’s safe to say that passengers out-thug employees by a heavy margin.

I’m a tad hesitant to dissect the matter, lest it become bogged in an unsolvable quandary of cause and effect. Has a sense of entitlement — an assumption of privilege — caused passengers to grow more pugnacious than ever? Per the evolution of technology, flying is no longer the rare and special event that beckoned our imaginations and, in turn, our best Sunday suits and behaviors. Are we spoiled, and thus more liable to whine, complain, and start screaming? Or have the affronts and hassles of flying, in and of themselves, reached a tipping point and blown out our patience? Are we coarser and more unruly as passengers, or as human beings? Or a measure of each?

Whatever the reasons, expecting an airline worker to maintain a bulletproof facade of dignity, courtesy, and a twinkle in his or her eye is, all things considered, a bit much. Put yourself in the position of typical counter agent or flight attendant, who in some cases is lucky to be pulling down $300 a week. How jaded and/or defensive would you be after untold clashes with infuriated customers, hardly all of whom were reacting rationally or coherently to a given situation?

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, “unruly passenger” events resulting in FAA enforcement actions nearly doubled between 1995 and 2001, peaking at 299 per year. Since then, the frequency of instances has dipped only slightly, doubtless owing to a heightened sense of fear and anxiety. Whether or not they have reason to be, many people are more spooked than ever by flying, and more prone to respond overtly when further agitated.

Looking at the data, the skies are safer than ever. Since September 11th, exactly two passenger airliners — one of them a 19-seat turboprop — have crashed in the United States. Two departures out of approximately 25 million. Worldwide, the year 2003 was the safest in commercial aviation history. Unfortunately, these sorts of numerical platitudes neither stop people from playing the lottery, nor keep them from getting jittery when stepping aboard a plane. For the most part it has always been this way, yes, in full and fair deference to human nature, but a portion of fliers have become disproportionately anxious.

I truly despise the relentless, post-September 11th intertwine of terrorism and flying, but apparently we’re stuck with it. If that day’s criminal cabal succeeded at one thing, it was grafting a virulently toxic psychology into the very DNA of air travel. Not entirely surprising, if you’ll allow me to turn political for a moment, in a society that increasingly encourages fear, front and center over rationality or common sense.

So-called “air rage,” of course, is the ultimate manifestation of passenger hostility. To date I have never done an Air Rage column (I’m going with caps from here on), though the issue, if for nothing more than its raw entertainment value, might beg one.

Reading through the vast docket of Air Rage incidents, the phenomenon seems, at times, almost a caricature of aggression. The more flagrant examples read like the choreographed ultra-violence of a WWF Smackdown. A vodka bottle broken over the head of an attendant and raked across her back; another whose face is slammed against a seat; a 767 forced to put down in Newfoundland where an inebriated rider, having pummeled his seatmates and threatened to kick out a window, is hauled away by Mounties (and later presented with a bill for the $35,000 in diversionary fuel costs).

Air Rage has spawned its own cult of victims, activists, and researchers. Take a look at the Skyrage Foundation, or check out www.airrage.org. While its determinants and solutions might seem patently obvious to some, that hasn’t stopped at least two books from attempting to deconstruct an Air Rage psychology. Argentinean author Guillermo Bruno gives us Unexpected Behavior in International Commercial Air Transport Passengers. Says Bruno: “It is only through an interdisciplinary approach to this phenomenon allowing us to understand and attack the causes that we will succeed in eradicating these undesired events.”

If you’re not feeling interdisciplinary, try Anonymous, Anonymous, and Andrew R. Thomas, the writers of Air Rage: Crisis in the Skies. That’s correct, two anonymouses contributing to the same work. Now, analyzing the causes and effects of airborne assault is not akin to divulging state secrets, and I can’t help but wonder what the secrecy is for. Granted I should read the book before judging it, but I’m led to think this particular investigation is more sensationalist than substantive.

On that note, our old friend Diana Fairechild, retired stewardess and author of Jet Smarter, has tackled the matter as well. Fairechild blames Air Rage on “oxygen deprivation.” She specifies the work of Vincent Mark, MD, an “environmental physician” in Santa Cruz, California, who explains: “Curtailment of fresh air in airplanes can be causing deficient oxygen in the brains of passengers, and this often makes people act belligerent, even crazy.”

We’ve been over this before, but for the record we’ll cover it again: cabin altitude in a typical jet is held at around 8,000 feet above sea level. That’s slightly higher than the elevation of Mexico City. Should we theorize that altitude, not squalor and destitution, is accountable for the extraordinary crime rate in the world’s most populous city? I am uncertain at what altitude, if any, people begin to go berserk, and my flight training tells me that headaches, nausea, and fatigue are the more tell-tale symptoms of hypoxia. Though, adds the good doctor from Santa Cruz, “I’m positive about this.”

The tendency here, as with any curious societal anomaly, is to engage a simple problem through needless layers of nonsense, pop psychology, and overly academic scrutiny. A year 2000 report from London Guildhall University, “Managing Disruptive Passengers: a Survey of the World’s Airlines,” lists alcohol and “personality of the passenger” as the most commonly cited contributing factors in, respectively, 88 percent and 81 percent of violent episodes. No offense to anybody’s devotion to scholarly inquisition or the scientific process itself, but how many research hours did the professors exhaust before concluding that excessive amounts of liquor served to habitually belligerent people in an overcrowded airliner is a recipe for trouble?

The statistical wild card is the strangely aberrant behavior demonstrated time to time by hitherto reasonable people. Reasonable drunk people, I should qualify, as alcohol remains a factor, but most of us do not turn into raging lunatics when inebriated. The most notorious and well-publicized of such cases was that of Gerard Finneran, the man who, on a United Airlines jet in 1996, harassed an attendant before defecating on a galley cart. A gang member on a tequila binge? No, Finneran was a Connecticut businessman on his way home from Buenos Aires, Argentina, sitting in first class.

Guitarist Peter Buck of the band REM was arrested after a fit of wilding on a British Airways flight between Seattle and London. Buck, also in first class and also having consumed a hefty snootful, allegedly upended a food cart, swore at the captain, and splattered cabin staff with yogurt. (Buck was responding to another passenger’s taunt of, “How come you pretentious bores never wrote a single decent song after the ‘Reckoning’ album in 1984?” Okay, I made that part up, but it needed to be said.)

Lastly are the more rare — and more dangerous — aggressions of those sober but mentally unstable. Five years ago, a deranged 28-year-old man forced his way into the cockpit of an All Nippon Airways 747 carrying 503 people and stabbed the captain to death with an eight-inch knife. In August, 2000, Jonathan Burton, a teenager from Las Vegas, was beaten and fatally suffocated by passengers after inexplicably attempting to storm the cockpit during a Southwest Airlines flight. In 1999 man suffering from encephalitis forced his way into the cockpit of an Alaska Airlines jet, and in 2001 a deranged passenger barged onto the flight deck of an American Airlines 767 and attempted to seize the controls.

In the vast majority of examples, however, it’s more predictable: a predisposition for hostility provides the needed tinder; crowds, delays, and the usual pains of travel are the match; alcohol the gasoline.

Reinforced cockpit doors are the best protection against crazed intruders, while it shouldn’t startle us that the cramped, tense quarters of a pressurized fuselage are apt to push certain individuals over the edge. Air travel – mysterious, stressful, high-profile — will always draws its share of deviants and attention seekers, whether terrorists or the mentally unsound.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.