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Cracking Down on Crime in the Skies

by The Wall Street Journal | February 23, 2012 | online.wsj.com

Serious Incidents on Airplanes Decline, but Drunk, Unruly Passengers Still Disrupt Travel

Increased fines and zero-tolerance policies have reduced "air rage'' on planes, government statistics show. But dozens of passengers are denied boarding or kicked off planes every day, according to reports from airlines and flight-attendant unions.

The police blotter last year included passengers arrested for slapping flight attendants on jetBlue Airways, watching child pornography on a Delta Air Lines flight and stealing cash from the purse of a Icelandair flight attendant.

A man was arrested for throwing peanuts and pretzels at a Southwest Airlines crew that stopped serving drinks, another for yelling "hijack" repeatedly while intoxicated on a Delta flight. When police hauled away an AirTran Airways passenger who allegedly was drunk and disorderly, other passengers applauded. As usual, several people were arrested for trying to open emergency exits in-flight, according to news reports.

Still, air rage assaults and other serious incidents aboard airplanes appear to be declining, according to reports of passenger disruptions that airlines file with the Federal Aviation Administration. Through October 2011, airlines filed 127 incidents with the FAA, compared with 149 in 2010 and 176 in 2009. In 2004, there were 330 incidents reported—or almost one per day, on average.

A few factors explain the decline. In the late 1990s, Congress toughened penalties and made noncompliance with crew members a federal crime. Making verbal or physical threats and intimidating or assaulting a crew member is a felony, with maximum punishment of 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Separately, airlines instituted zero-tolerance policies and even issued flexible handcuff restraints to crews.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, flight attendants and passengers watched more closely for unusual passenger behavior, often leading to confrontations with agitated passengers.

The FAA handles serious cases that don't reach the level of a security threat or criminal charges. Last year, the FAA proposed fines on unruly passengers totaling $439,175, down 25% from $582,331 in 2010. Total proposed fines have been as high as $686,000 in 2009, according to data released Wednesday under a Freedom of Information Act request. (Proposed fines may end up getting reduced or eliminated by courts or settlements.)

Now, flight-attendant unions, airlines and FAA officials say zero tolerance is working.

"Increasing fines and increasing awareness" have been the major changes that have lessened air rage, said Veda Shook, president of the Association of Flight Attendants and an Alaska Airlines flight attendant. "I think we're going forward," she said. "Everybody understands the importance of a calm cabin up in the air."

But plenty of passengers are still denied boarding or forced off of airplanes after arguing with crew members or other passengers. JetBlue, for example, said that last year, 594 of its customers were denied boarding or removed from aircraft. In addition, there were 14 incidents of planes that returned to gates to eject disruptive passengers. In one case, a flight in the air was diverted to make an unscheduled stop to eject a passenger.

Alaska Airlines had 12 flights diverted because of disruptive passengers last year. Other airlines declined to say how many customers get evicted from flights or how many flights get diverted because of disruptive passengers. A spokesman for United Airlines did say the biggest driver of denied boarding for unruly passengers is intoxication.

Projecting jetBlue's rate of disruptive passengers over the rest of the U.S. airline industry means more than 17,000 passengers were denied boarding or removed from flights on U.S. airlines last year, or close to 50 per day. That is in line with what flight-attendant unions report.

Alcohol, drugs, medication and mental illness are often cited as causes in different incidents. The stress of travel has also been blamed, such as frequent delays and cramped seating aboard crowded planes. Flight attendants who work long overnight flights say the combination of booze and sleeping pills can lead to trouble.

American Airlines had one sleepwalking customer strip naked and parade through the cabin in 2009, according to news reports and the airline's flight-attendant union.

"Usually something very disruptive or bad involves some kind of misuse of medication, intoxication or mental illness," said Kelly Skyles, an American flight attendant who is safety and security coordinator for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

Earlier this year, Congress approved a requirement for airlines to train flight attendants and gate agents on recognizing and dealing with inebriated or belligerent passengers. The purpose, according to Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who sponsored the measure, is so airlines will make better decisions about when to stop serving alcohol to customers or deny boarding to passengers who show up at the gate drunk. Federal law prohibits allowing an intoxicated passenger to board.

Sen. Udall was motivated by a 2006 alcohol-related car crash that claimed six lives. A man who had been drinking on an airline flight crashed a car carrying a family of five.

In addition to criminal prosecution and federal fines, airlines can ban customers from their flights for a number of years, or for life. It's rare, however. But airlines do record incidents in passenger profiles kept in their reservation systems—if you end up in a dispute with a flight attendant, it likely will become a part of your profile, just like your frequent-flier number and home address. Carriers sometimes refuse to fly repeat offenders.

In 1999, for example, a Continental Airlines gate agent in Newark, N.J., was hospitalized with severe neck injuries after being slammed to the ground by a customer, who was convicted of assault and banned from Continental for life.

The FAA says the hard line on noncompliance ensures that disputes won't take away from flight-attendant safety duties.

Still, passengers sometimes complain that flight attendants, most of whom get training in de-escalating confrontations, sometimes raise tensions themselves—provoking passengers with pointed comments or ejecting passengers for seemingly minor fussing. Flight attendants say often they deem it best to remove a passenger while still on the ground rather than risk growing anger once in the air. Union leaders also acknowledge that tolerance levels have gone down and stress levels for crews have gone up.

"Most of us work longer days and more flights with less rest," said Ms. Skyles, the American flight attendant. "And it's not the youngest work force. Sometimes you'll have a more mature flight attendant with sometimes a bit stronger approach than a 20-something would have."