Olympic Hijack Scare May Fall Into Disturbing Pattern of Drunken Passengers

Feb 7, 2014 5:01pm

MOSCOW – If Friday’s Olympic airplane hijacking scare appears to be nothing more than a drunken man on a rampage, but it’s just the latest in a disturbingly common pattern of belligerent alcohol-fueled airplane incidents in this part of the world.

Over 24,000 passengers were punished for drinking-related offenses in Russian airports and on planes in 2011, according to Russian government figures cited by the state-run news agency RIA Novosti.

Just this week, a Russian man flying to the United Arab Emirates was arrested for drunkenness aboard an Ethiad Airways flight to Abu Dhabi.

In January, a drunken man on a domestic flight in Russia assaulted a crew member after being caught smoking in the bathroom, breaking the crew member’s nose.

Last November, an Easyjet flight from Moscow to Manchester, England, was forced to land in Copenhagen after a drunken fan of the Russian soccer team CSKA Moscow walked the aisles of the plane holding a bottle and chanting.

In one infamous incident filmed by passengers in January 2013, a Russian man flying to Egypt was accused of battery after he assaulted cabin crew in a drunken rage. He then reportedly tried to enter the cockpit. The man was ultimately sentenced to three and a half years in prison for attempted hijacking.

A month later, another flight from Moscow to Thailand had to make an emergency landing in Uzbekistan after a drunken Russian attacked fellow passengers.

According to Russia’s Interfax news agency, Ukraine’s security services identified today’s alleged hijacker as a Ukrainian man born in 1969 who was intoxicated but unarmed. The man demanded the plane routed from Ukraine to Turkey fly to Sochi during Friday’s Olympics Opening Ceremony. He allegedly tried to enter the cockpit while shouting, “We are flying to Sochi.”

A U.S. official told ABC News that “the situation has been resolved” and that the passenger has been “subdued.” The official confirmed that Turkish authorities suspect this was “99 percent (probably) just a drunk on a plane.” A U.S. official says they do not believe the man was part of some larger plot.

It is not uncommon for passengers in Russia and other former Soviet republics to purchase cheap duty-free booze in the airport to drink on the flight, regardless of time of day.

On a recent morning flight from Moscow to Geneva, this reporter witnessed a man finish an entire 375 ml bottle of Captain Morgan’s rum during the under-four-hour flight. By the time the Swiss Air crew found him, shortly before landing, he could not even buckle his safety belt on his own, much to the horror of the flight attendants.

It’s perhaps one reason the Russian airline Aeroflot commonly reminds passengers before takeoff that they are forbidden from consuming alcoholic beverages “that are not offered on board.” Some long-haul Aeroflot routes have stopped serving alcohol entirely.

The maximum punishment, however, for run-of-the-mill disorderly behavior aboard a flight in Russia is a 3,000 rubles fine (roughly $86) and a 15-day jail term, according to RIA Novosti. Russian lawmakers have considered stricter measures to prevent further incidents, including installing security cameras, sending security guards on board, and even banning bringing duty-free liquor on board entirely. Aeroflot has suggested they be allowed to subdue rowdy passengers with plastic handcuffs.

Russia’s drinking culture is legendary. World Health Organization figures for 2011 rate Russia’s per capita alcohol consumption at fourth in the world, with former Soviet republics like Ukraine not far behind.

But a recent medical study exposed its deadly effects. According to a study published in The Lancet, 25% of Russian men die before they turn 55, with most of the deaths as a result of alcohol and alcohol-related incidents.

The good news, however, is that the study found those figures had actually improved. Just a decade earlier 37% of Russian men died before age 55 due to alcohol.

ABC News’ Josh Margolin contributed to this report.

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