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Friday, September 4, 1998 Published at 00:34 GMT 01:34 UK


When air passengers fly into a rage

Once upon a time the thought of boarding a gleaming airliner and jetting off to some far-flung destination was the apex of anyone's romantic imagination.

Today it's a very different story. Flying is now a form of transport for the masses, airliners are more humbly called aircraft, while apex is just a term for the rock-bottom ticket fares that bucket shops are awash with.

But this change in attitude has brought a new phenomenon to the skies - that of the airborne hooligan.

[ image: The yellow card: A final warning to abusive travellers]
The yellow card: A final warning to abusive travellers
Stories of air rage have been hitting the headlines with increasing frequency.

On Friday, 24-year-old Elizabeth Elliott will appear for sentence in a London court, after pleading guilty to two counts of actual bodily harm and one of endangering an aircraft, while flying with British Airways.

BA sees it as a "test case" claiming it is the first time anyone in Britain will have been convicted of endangering an aircraft.

The airline has reported a 400% rise in air rage incidents globally over the last three years and major carriers are finally starting to wake up to the disturbing facts.

In the past, says Gordon White of the union Cabin Crew 89, reports of threatening and violent behaviour tended to be swept under the carpet.

[ image: Crew can refuse alcohol to disruptive passengers]
Crew can refuse alcohol to disruptive passengers
"It used to be that when a passenger was badly behaved that was something just between them and the cabin staff member," says Mr White.

"It was seen as bad for business to offend a fare-paying passenger. Cabin crew just had to put up with it."

In British Airways at least, the climate has changed over the past three years, he says.

The airline runs courses on dealing with abusive passengers, keeps plastic handcuffs on board planes and actively encourages flight crew to report incidents to the police.

Its latest tactic is to issue senior staff with "yellow card" warning notices, to be handed to disruptive passengers.

Mr White says that like domestic violence, air rage has probably always been around but only now is it being consistently reported.

[ image: A last resort is to handcuff violent passengers]
A last resort is to handcuff violent passengers
Aggressive passengers are not only a nuisance, they are a safety risk, he says.

"It's a dangerous environment. You're thousands of feet in the air in a metal tube full of highly flammable fuel. If someone tries to open one of the escape exits - that's something very serious."

And whereas in a pub or nightclub a nuisance customer is easy to eject, it's a far bigger problem on an aeroplane.

In extreme cases a captain may decide to divert a flight, but it will be at a price. BA says the average cost of an unscheduled landing is £40,000.

Blame smoking

BA - which dealt with 260 disruptive passengers in 1997 - says 70% of incidents were smoking related. In which case that figure can be expected to rise for 1998 after the airline extended a ban on smoking to all its flights earlier this year.

But a spokesman for the airline said there were no plans to stop free drink supply on flights, which was mooted as one solution by the help group Alcohol Concern.

"We have no intention of being a killjoy and punishing our well-behaved passengers," he said.

While it's hard to excuse violent behaviour, air travel can often be a frustrating and uncomfortable experience.

Delays raise tension

Delays and lack of information, queuing and cramped seating in economy class are enough to drive even the most placid traveller to despair. It is even suggested that the odours and heat emitted by fellow passengers can arouse anxiety and aggression.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that air rage is more common on long-haul flights when passengers have been cooped up in a tight space for hours on end.

But short flights to stag party destinations such as Dublin and Amsterdam can also be a problem, as passengers get tanked up in the bar before boarding.

However, it's worth bearing in mind that air rage is still relatively rare. BA's 260 reported incidents in 1997 came in a year when the airline carried 40 million passengers.

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