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Travelers' Aid

Air Rage
January 5, 2001

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Folks are still talking about those scary moments aboard a British Airways 747 last week. On a London to Nairobi flight, just before new years, a man stormed the cockpit and forced the plane into a series of steep dives * losing 10,000 feet in just two minutes. The flight crew regained control of the plane in plenty of time, and passengers subdued the attacker, who was then arrested upon landing in Kenya. In the end, only those who struggled with the passenger were hurt.

The man was able to enter the cockpit, without warning, because British Airways policy allows the cockpit door to be unlocked when a plane is at altitude. The door is locked during take-offs and landings. That policy is different than all flights in U.S. airspace, as the FAA requires all airlines to lock the cockpit door with very few exceptions.

The problem of air rage seems to be a relatively new one. Just the term "air rage" dates back only a few years. But flight attendants have been dealing with unruly passengers in one way or another, since commercial aviation began. Now, most airlines are tight-lipped about their security policies, but Swissair, for one, went public last month with theirs. Every Swissair flight now has plastic handcuffs on board to restrain out-of-hand passengers. A Swiss court also recently ruled that it's "okay" for flight attendants to slap passengers who make unwanted sexual advances.

The fact a court would have to make such a ruling says something about the frustration flight attendants feel when faced with a bad, and potentially very serious, situation. Now, flight attendants are not police, although law enforcement gives them great leeway to act like cops when situations dictate it. And airlines vary greatly on how they train their personnel to handle out-of-control people.

On an American Airlines flight, again, just before New Years, a Toronto man allegedly attacked a pilot in the main cabin. Witnesses say he was banging on walls and yelling things like "We're all going to die! This plane is going to crash!" It took the captain, flight attendants, and another passenger to hold the man down and restrain him.

We invited representatives from the airlines to come on our program and fill us in on their procedures, but they declined - they say they don't like to talk about these things. Pat Friend, however does. She's the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing flight attendants at 21 airlines. She says, air travel is becoming more frustrating for attendants, and for passengers too, and that most of these incidents have a pretty logical start. She agrees with me that it's tough to know whether these types of incidents are actually getting worse, becoming more common.

We hear more about them, that's true, but there are more people flying these days, so it makes sense that the number of bad apples is going up too. And airlines are better at reporting confrontations than they used to be. Look, we all know travel can be frustrating, especially air travel. Let's hope that with a new year, a new millennium, after all, cooler heads can prevail.

If you'd like us to address your travel questions or concerns, send us an email. Or, you can snail-mail them in. The address is The Savvy Traveler, in care of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California 90007. Or call me at 888-SAV-TRAV.


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