Flying Wildly Out Of Control

They're called "irates"--fliers who spin out of control. Mysterious crashes and terrorism are more fundamental worries, but for the vast majority of passengers the biggest danger may be in the next seat. Industry officials are deeply concerned about the phenomenon known as "air rage." It ranges from verbal abuse to on-board rowdiness to drunkenness and, increasingly, outright violence. By some estimates, as many as half of all flights contain an "irate" of one kind or another, from counter pounders to worse.

Almost everyone who flies regularly has a story. Among the more famous features Diana Ross, detained by police not long ago after the star, irked at being frisked too intimately, squeezed an airport security woman's breast and asked, "How do you like it?" Most bouts of air rage are simply annoying, but such incidents can also be dangerous. Consider: in Newark, N.J., an angry traveler body-slammed a Continental gate manager into the floor, breaking his neck. In Las Vegas a Delta airliner flying from Los Angeles to Atlanta made an emergency landing when a man, told he had to wait his turn for a drink, attacked a flight attendant and two passengers, scalding a woman and her baby with coffee. (For the city's McCarren Airport, it was the third such incident in a month.) In Buffalo, N.Y., a Continental jet en route to Cleveland was forced down after a woman, informed the flight would be two hours late, tried to batter her way into the cockpit. "Sooner or later," says Stephen Luckey, chairman of the Airline Pilots Association, "someone is going to lose it and take a whole plane down with him."

As most passengers see it, "airlines treat customers as freight, something to be transported as fast and profitably as possible," says Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant in Colorado. Airlines blame uncivil passengers. "Every day one of us gets hit or shoved," says one gate attendant at Newark International Airport. "They spit on us. They throw coffee."

Understanding the roots of the problem may suggest solutions. Many flight attendants and pilots propose limiting the number of drinks a passenger can be served. One Continental flight attendant says, "I've had passengers yell at me because I didn't get them a drink quick enough... at 6:30 a.m." Meanwhile, United Airlines, among others, limits carry-on luggage, which in turn cuts down on squabbles over scarce luggage space. Airlines are also getting tougher. When a crew member aboard British Airways decides a passenger is getting unruly, he hands him a notice that reads "Final Warning," threatening prosecution.

Lawmakers are touting a "Passenger Bill of Rights," requiring carriers to inform ticketholders if their flight is overbooked and notify them promptly of delays. But experts say traffic will double by 2010 without any compensating increase in airline or airport capacity. That may mean more fuel for high-flying tempers.