A place to dump `air rage' cargo

Bangor: By design, the Maine city's international airport has become a favorite place for airlines to unload troublesome passengers.

September 03, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

BANGOR, Maine -- Call it the season of rage that put Bangor on the map, and begin with the episode of Englishman Bryan Neal.

On a flight out of Orlando in May, the homeward-bound Neal had a few too many drinks, smashed a video screen and began ramming a window, telling fellow passengers they were about to "get sucked out and die." The crew strapped him down and dropped him off in Bangor.

Three weeks later came the case of apparent drug smuggler Nicardo Wallvin Blake, who was using the name Shabiyah Negus Davidson. When a balloon filled with cocaine ruptured in his stomach during a flight from Jamaica to Amsterdam, he went berserk, pounding a bathroom door to pieces and grabbing a woman by the throat. The crew strapped him down and dropped him off in Bangor.

Ten days later, Christopher Bayes downed five drinks before boarding an Atlanta-to-England flight, then downed his sixth and seventh. When a stewardess refused him an eighth, he threw a tray of food, got into a fight, cut his lip and bled all over first class. The crew strapped him down, sat on him, and dropped him off in Bangor.

Just like that, Bangor was the Air Rage Capital of America.

No longer was this merely a drab city on the Penobscot River known mostly as the hometown of horror writer Stephen King and for its garish two-story statue of Paul Bunyan. Now it had international standing.

Bayes closed the recent cycle Tuesday, when he was sentenced in federal court to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine after his conviction two weeks ago.

But Bangor's new reputation lives on. And if you're thinking it's just a fluke of dumb luck and bad behavior, think again. It is a product of careful planning and clever marketing.

In fact, if Bangor International Airport had a slogan, it would be a variation on the words found at the Statue of Liberty: Give us your tired, your poor, your broken, your shackled drunks yearning to be free.

"What has happened is that we have become the diversion airport of choice," says airport marketing manager Jeff Russell, who promotes the place with an almost evangelical zeal.

A trans-Atlantic flight becomes a potential Bangor customer, Russell says, "when it has fuel needs, or bad weather at its scheduled destination, or a sick passenger, or, last but not least, if someone's behavior is not up to standard. And when [the airlines] think of an airport they know they can work with, they think of Bangor. They can get in and out quickly, and they can save an awful lot of money."

It's no knock on Logan Airport in Boston, he says, or LaGuardia in New York, it's just that they've got all that traffic, all those delays, and all those extra costs. It also doesn't hurt that Bangor is the first possible U.S. stop for entering flights, and the last one for those going out.

Selling the idea

Russell made all these points in March during one of his regular meetings with airline officials. Facing 25 to 30 of them, he says, "One of our topics of discussion was air rage. We noted the trend and said, `It's an issue that you're probably going to see more of,' and naturally we told them they ought to use us. Then, wham, right off the bat, no sooner had we gotten back than we had three very serious incidents right in a row."

In the first two, passengers were unloaded, interviewed, calmed down, reloaded and back on their way within an hour of landing. The third case took an extra hour because ground crews had to scrub out the bloodstains Bayes left behind.

The airlines seem to appreciate the attention. "Thank you for the excellent and professional assistance during the diversion," Roel van Meerten, an executive with Martinair Holland, wrote in a memo telexed to Bangor after the problem with the passenger and the cocaine.

"Everyone involved handled it beautifully," Kay Warner, a spokeswoman for Delta Air Lines, said after one of its passengers was taken off a plane in Bangor's latest air-rage case.

Teams ready for action

Russell will happily show you the people and places at the airport that make such rapid handling possible.

"We have a team on call, and we can usually be ready to roll in about 20 minutes," he says.

As soon as the call for help comes in, out come the refueling crews and the staff for the airport's international transit lounge, where the unloaded peaceful passengers can wait without having to go through U.S. Customs. Unlike, say, New York's LaGuardia, where such places are almost constantly busy and crowded, Bangor's is generally quiet and empty. The airport handles no more than a dozen international flights a week.

So the arrivals almost always find the place empty, waiting just for them. There is a lounge with 90 cushioned seats facing a large television, a glassed-in smoking area with seating for 75, a deli counter, a play area with a Lego table, a gift shop and a duty-free shop. There's also a world map where the weather report for the eventual destination is posted -- but only if the forecast is rosy.

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