“I have some opinions about the causes of Air Rage,” states an email from reader Chris Edwards. Like many of you, Edwards found my dissection of the topic slightly off kilter. “I used to be a prosecutor, and I find myself driving around town, wondering how many shootings and stabbings and beatings are going on around me. It’s my hypothesis that there are no ’causes’ or ‘triggers’ for Air Rage other than simple human depravity. In fact I would argue there are probably significantly fewer incidents than one would otherwise expect. If you take the same million-plus people who ride on airplanes every day and follow them around, you’d see far more occurrences where customers break bottles over the heads of their bartenders, stab their taxi driver, choke their wives and otherwise lose their minds. Surprise, most of these incidents will happen when the perpetrator is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”
Edwards makes a cogent point. I complained of others unnecessarily deconstructing the Air Rage phenomenon, but, in a way, I may have done the same thing. If I’m hoping to play the role of aeroprovocateur, maybe I should loosen up and call my shots more cleanly. A better summary: people make trouble on airplanes in much the same ways, and for the same reasons, that they make trouble in shopping malls, in the bleachers at baseball games, or for that matter in the privacy of their own homes.
To nobody’s amazement, studies reveal that alcohol plays a central role in about 90 percent of Air Rage incidents, and many suggest the best way to preclude inflight violence is to ban inflight booze. On one hand, it’s plain to see that the root source of Air Rage is no more alcohol than the root source of terrorism is the bomb, boxcutter, or handgun. On the other hand, in a jetliner at 37,000 feet, the issue is more critically about the facilitation of overt acts and not their underlying pathologies, if any. Using raw statistics it seems an easy call: lock away the liquor and episodes of airborne assault are cut by nine-tenths. Except it’s never so simple. In the absence of alcohol, a portion of those predisposed to belligerence will find other excuses to rant, rave, and break things. In the meantime, airlines make money from those bottles and cans, and the vast majority of passengers who indulge do so peacefully. Neither consumer nor server is eager to do away this mainstay of inflight service.
We also should remember that of the most hair-raising Air Rage occurrences most have come at the hands of unhinged but otherwise sober individuals. An Eighteenth Amendment of the air would not have prevented the 1999 murder of the All Nippon Airways captain, or the storming of flight decks by deranged fliers at American Airlines, Iberia, Southwest and elsewhere. Post-2001 safety measures and fortified cockpits should sharply reduce the already small numbers of incidents that endanger everybody on board, while future events — what shall remain of them — will be, alas, the simple province of inevitability. Like crashes themselves, they can be reduced to relative insignificance but never entirely thwarted.
The daily passenger total in the United States alone is more than 1.5 million riders. With that kind of volume, it’s possible that Air Rage is more notable in its absence than its presence. Incidents have increased in frequency, yes, but the demographic of the flying public also has become more varied and, let’s just say, less button-down. Neither are incidents of rogue probability, such as the inflight crackup of the mild-mannered businessman who used the galley cart for a toilet, exclusive to the arena of air travel. Borrowing from the FAA’s air rage tallies, one Ask the Pilot reader puts it this way: “In 2001 There were 299 events out of — paging Mr. Google — 600 million domestic US passengers. Considering that you make a regular point of the safety of air travel, backed up with statistics, it’s a little weird to see you spending a whole column on such a apparently insignificant phenomenon.”
Two columns, at this point, and the same logic tempts us to say there’s no real point in discussing accidents either. But who are we kidding? Both crashes and Air Rage are destined to spill a lot of ink, deservedly or otherwise.
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.