Flight Attendants Say Air Rage Ignored

ByBryan Robinson

July 6, 2001 -- Government officials and airlines are failing at efforts to fight air rage, and that's angering the people who have to deal with the consequences, airline labor groups say.

The Association of Flight Attendants, the nation's largest union for flight attendants, says Federal Aviation Administration officials, the Justice Department and airlines are not doing enough and gives them all failing grades in a "report card" released today.

"Our U.S. airlines have failed to promote cabin safety over their profits," Patricia Friend, head of the flight attendants' organization, said today. "They have failed adopt training guidelines issued by the FAA, they've failed to take the full responsibility for these air rage incidents, and they've failed to support workers who are victims of air rage."

She said that there were 4,000 air rage incidents documented last year, but that only a handful of problem passengers had been fined.

Day of Action Against Air Rage

The report today coincides with the second annual Day of Action Against Air Rage — a campaign sponsored by several airline workers' unions.

The report card, an assessment of air rage incidents, is intended to bring attention to what the unions say is government neglect in the face of a rising number of air rage incidents. One reason officials underestimate the air rage problem, the AFA says, is that many incidents are not reported.

"I think it happens more often than the public would like to believe it happens, but the problem is nobody's doing anything about it. That means the airlines," customer service representative Jean Lebo said.

The AFA complains federal officials have concealed the magnitude of the problem by only reporting incidents that lead to law enforcement involvement.

Because airlines are not required to report every instance, there is a great discrepancy in rage statistics between the AFA and the FAA. Citing the Air Transport Association, AFA officials say there are approximately 4,000 air rage incidents a year. The FAA says only 314 clashes were reported last year. In 1998 and 1999, there were 281 and 306 incidents reported, respectively.

Air Rage Numbers Don't Add Up

At the news conference today unveiling the report, flight attendants took turns relating their horror stories in the air.

"I tried to calm her one final time. As I got quieter, the louder she got, and as I was saying please calm down, she slammed me across the face," flight attendant Lynn White said, describing a flight from San Francisco to China where two passengers became enraged.

Air rage clashes have continued to make headlines in recent months. In April, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck apologized for an incident in which two British Airway staff members said he assaulted them in a drunken rage during a flight to London.

Last week, a Wyoming man was arrested for allegedly attacking two Great Lakes Aviation employees as he waited for his sister to arrive on her delayed flight.

Not even airline workers can seem to escape the rage: a British Columbia woman — who was also a planner for Transport Canada — allegedly punched a flight attendant when she was told she could not smoke on the flight to Toronto.

Air Rage: Flight Attendants' Secret Weapon?

Despite the difference in their statistics, both the FAA and the AFA agree the number of air rage clashes has been rising. One expert believes flight attendants' statistics may be inflated because they would benefit from bloated numbers. However, that does not deflate the danger posed by out-of-control passengers.

"I think a lot of people are a lot more sensitized to incidents," said Dean Headley, an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University who has written reports on airline quality. "Flight attendants can come across someone who's just having a bad day and then either blows a gasket or argues with them and that's considered air rage."

Passengers can be fined up $25,000 per violation and imprisoned up to 20 years for air rage assaults. But airline workers say these are not effective deterrents and that the FAA must find a way to stress the consequences of air rage to passengers before they get on the plane.

The flight attendants also want the FAA to take a strong stand on limiting alcohol intake on flights.

Stomping Out the Roots of Rage … On the Ground

Some believe air rage could be best combated by extinguishing its potential genesis on the ground. Passengers, Headley believes, may get aggravated while enduring long lines and waits before their flights. Customer service representatives who are either ill-prepared or ill-equipped to handle annoyed passengers may aggravate the situation and plant the roots of rage.

"What happens on the ground could affect what happens in the air, and vice versa," said Headley. "I really don't think airlines have dealt with the problem effectively. I've run into [airline] employees who are just clueless — the wrong person for the wrong job. You need a person with a unique set of skills who can deal with people trying to connect to flights, who can handle getting yelled at. I don't think airlines have screened people well enough for the jobs they are doing and that they can do more than what they are already doing."

The AFA declined to grade the White House in its report card, giving it an "incomplete" grade as it waits to see how President Bush addresses air rage. The group says its members will be handing out leaflets at airports nationwide asking the public for its help in curbing air rage.

As part of this year's Day of Action Against Air Rage, the International Association of Machinists says it is urging Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta to lobby for laws that would make it a federal offense to interfere with ground workers during the performance of their duties, and eliminate jurisdictional problems for flight crews when air rage incidents occur outside the United States.

ABCNEWS.com's Oliver Libaw contributed to this report.