The Six Worst Airplane Passengers of 2009

Drunken passengers are just the beginning of the worst fliers so far this year.

May 6, 2009 — -- We've all heard about (and sometimes seen for ourselves) the ugly side of the airlines.

I'm talking about Surly Sue, the flight attendant with the fake smile, the snippy manner and the "don't even think about asking for another pack of peanuts" glare. Or how about the Clueless Customer Service Guy, who has no idea when the next available flight is, and clearly doesn't care.

But you know what? Some of those unpleasant airline employees (and there aren't many, believe me) are complete and utter delights when you compare them to some of the customers.

The ones I call nightmare passengers -- the people who torment the flight crews and leave the rest of us begging for mercy. Yes, their numbers are tiny, too. But not tiny enough.

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In case you haven't been keeping up, here's my short list of Worst Passengers of 2009:

"Liquid Soap Lady": A woman on a United flight allegedly took pills and alcohol, then tried to bite a crew member's leg. She also reportedly drank down the contents of a lavatory's liquid soap dispenser (apparently for its alcohol content). Her explanation to the cops: "I sometimes do crazy things."

"I-Have-a-Bomb Guy": A passenger on a Delta flight reportedly knocked a crew member to the floor as he attempted to open an exit door while yelling, "I have a bomb!" Passengers piled on, and he was subdued (keep reading for the postscript).

"Drinking Buddy": According to reports, flight attendants on a small Comair jet cut off the booze to a hefty and clearly intoxicated passenger, so he started swinging. The incident took place before 10 in the morning, and the loaded lad was reportedly on his way to his grandmother's funeral.

Exiting a Plane Too Soon

"Get Me Outta Here": An American Airlines jet had landed but was still waiting for gate space when an impatient passenger decided, "Enough!" He opened an aircraft door, deploying the emergency slide that he then used to make his getaway. He was detained by the cops but so were all the other passengers because they had to wait for "slide removal" before the aircraft could get to the gate.

"Cockpit Crasher": Police say an "unruly" fellow onboard a Delta flight heading from New York to Tel Aviv made a mad dash for the cockpit door and began pounding on it, forcing an emergency landing in Boston. The man blamed it on a panic attack.

"The Screamer": The tantrum began when the female passenger missed her Hong Kong flight and began screaming at the top of her lungs, all the while banging a desk, smacking into people and falling to the airport floor. Her shrill, hysterical screams were heard 'round the world, thanks to a Cathay Pacific employee who took video that wound up on YouTube.

What the heck's going on? Well, maybe not much. After all, most of us don't run into these people in the air or anywhere else, thank goodness.

And, as Emily Post, author of the definitive "Etiquette," once said, "Since it is not likely that anyone would go around the world being deliberately offensive to others, it may be taken for granted that obnoxious behavior is either the fault of thoughtlessness or ignorance."

Or alcohol. Amazing what a big part this plays in bad behavior in the air (and elsewhere). Not always, of course. But when the pilot of an AirTran jet flying from Cancun to Baltimore radioed ahead to alert authorities about two passengers with nausea and fever -- in other words, possible swine flu victims -- the crew must have been chagrined to discover the two were merely drunk.

So how's a flier supposed to survive these days? Same way airline employees must: by following the old "do unto others." A little courtesy on both sides can go a long way to keeping us comfortable in those sardine tins called planes.

More Bad Passengers

And don't forget, often your fellow passengers are the good guys. Remember the "I Have a Bomb" incident? A bunch of passengers came to the rescue, including guitarist Chris Llewellyn who was on his way to a gig with rapper Asher Roth of "I Love College" fame. "I'm not going to go down with the plane," Llewellyn remembered thinking. Nice job.

So what to do if you have a legitimate complaint during your flight? Here's one example of getting your message across the right way.

A man who was disappointed in a meal he'd been served aboard a Virgin flight decided to complain to Richard Branson personally. His hilarious, yet perfectly polite letter recounts his dismay at peeling back the foil covering his entree, and, well, I'll let him tell it.

"Imagine being a 12-year-old boy, Richard. Now imagine it's Christmas morning and you're there with your final present to open. Only you open the present and [that much anticipated stereo] is not in there. It's your hamster, Richard. It's your hamster in the box and it's not breathing."

Did Branson flinch? Of course not. This is one entrepreneur who leavens his genius with a playful sense of humor. He promptly called the fellow and offered him a job as taste tester for airline cuisine.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.