An increase in 'air rage' makes for unfriendly skies Violence aboard planes doubled in past few years

August 23, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

It used to be that airline passengers would click back their seats, munch on a bag of peanuts and fall happily asleep during an encore of "Grease."

But these days, airplane cabins are more like wrestling rings at 35,000 feet -- arenas where all-out mayhem twinged with violence, sex and mental derangement fill the airborne hours.

Vacationers getting ready to board planes during this busy travel season need to know the grim statistics, which have more than doubled in the past few years. Perpetrators are passengers of all ages, races, nationalities and walks of life -- travelers possessed by the desire to be raucous and raw.

The bizarre trend has gripped airlines across the country.

In July 1997, Philadelphia hairstylist James Minerva Jr. started a ruckus aboard a US Airways flight from Fort Lauderdale to Philadelphia after a flight attendant refused to serve him more liquor. Minerva tried to get into the cockpit to complain to the captain, according to court records.

Minerva argued with the attendant, then grabbed her by the arm, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Goldberg, who prosecuted Minerva in federal court. Minerva was fined $5,000, placed on two years probation and ordered to undergo alcohol counseling.

Similar behavior is plaguing air travel across the country, steadily increasing since the early 1990s. Overcome with the adventure of flying -- and dizzy from alcohol -- couples copulate in cramped bathrooms or aren't leaving their seats at all, opting to get naked, and busy, in plain view.

Others are stripping and frolicking up and down aisles. One man was arrested for molesting his seat. In two other cases, male passengers fondled frightened female passengers sitting next to them.

Still other sardine-cramped passengers -- irritated by orders to fasten their seat belts, flip up their tray tables or stop smoking -- have become more impatient and more violent. Flight attendants have been badly beaten and onlookers have restrained attackers with plastic handcuffs, headset cords and makeshift gags.

Since 1991, the number of incidents involving overly passionate plane passengers or travelers who otherwise interfere with or endanger flights have doubled, according to airline statistics.

United Airlines logged 428 incidents in 1997, up from 226 in 1995, according to a spokesman. At American Airlines, the number has also soared, going from 296 in 1994 to 836 last year.

Federal Aviation Administration statistics on what it calls "interfering with a crew member" have grown from 99 in 1991 to 195 in 1997 -- a figure the FAA says is conservative because many airlines aren't required to, and don't, report all incidents to FAA security, opting instead to report to local police or airport security.

"We don't know what sets people off," said FAA spokeswoman Kathryn Creedy. "Because we're living in a society where there's road rage and now air rage, there doesn't seem to be any one single cause."

Flight attendants say flights are often understaffed, forcing attendants to rely on help from passengers to control airborne kooks.

US Airways flight attendant Renee Sheffer, of Gastonia, N.C., was on a flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore in December when a 21-year old former high school football running back -- allegedly high on LSD -- got rowdy.

The passenger had been walking up and down aisles, blessing people and ranting about religion before he struck, throwing Sheffer over three rows of seats and bruising her.

"It's sheer terror," said Sheffer, who, with the help of two off-duty pilots and another passenger, subdued the man and strapped a seat belt around him. "The actions of one person can bring a whole plane down. He was calm until the last 45 minutes of the flight."

American Eagle attendant Christa Tess of Minnesota had been flying for nearly three years before she saw air rage.

On a February 1997 flight from Cleveland to Chicago, Tess says, she asked a man who'd been chugging vodka in a restroom to take his seat. The man curled up in a ball on the floor at the back of the plane and told passengers a man with a gun and bomb was at the front of the plane, she says. He then attacked Tess, choking her and repeatedly asking her to "forgive him because he loved me," Tess said.

Tess said the airlines should be forced to relieve the cramped conditions that she believes may cause some of the in-flight tension.

"I think it's society," said Tess, who sued American Eagle and hasn't worked as a flight attendant since the experience. "The airlines are putting too many people on the planes and are allowing this to happen."

Experts have an array of explanations for the startling increase in arrests, injuries and incidents.

Flight attendants say the cabin charades often begin with free-flowing alcohol -- either purchased, smuggled or complimentary.

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