Saturday 7 December 2019

Airlines need to accept their role in creating air rage

Dolores O'Riordan was arrested following an incident on a plane from New York to Shannon
Dolores O'Riordan was arrested following an incident on a plane from New York to Shannon

Patricia Casey

Air rage (also called sky rage) was unheard of until a few years ago. Now it makes headlines with monotonous regularity and when a celebrity is allegedly involved it becomes front page news, even in quality newspapers.

The latest person to come to public attention is Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries although there is no certainty that she was actually involved in this behaviour.

Other well-known figures whose names are associated with air rage include supermodel Naomi Campbell, actor Alec Baldwin, and Jennifer Lauren, the niece of fashion designer Ralph. But this tantrum-throwing isn't confined to celebrities, and just at the end of September an incident involving a passenger on a flight from Cork to Gran Canaria resulted in a man being taken to prison when the plane arrived at its destination.

It is only in recent years that air rage has come to public attention, having reportedly increased markedly since the 9/11 bombings. This is disputed by some sources such as www.flighthealth.org while the Air Transport Association estimates that the number of such incidents on US airlines is around 4,000 annually. However airlines are not required to inform the Federal Aviation Authority of such incidents and so this agency's data is likely to be an underestimate, recording 329 incidents in 1997.

Air rage has been a recognised crime since 1963 when the Tokyo Convention agreed that when a case is being prosecuted, the laws of the country where the aircraft is registered take precedence over the airspace in which the event occurred or commenced. Prior to that, there was jurisdictional uncertainty and many cases went unpunished.

The first recorded case arose on a flight from Havana to Miami in 1947.

Why does it attract so much public attention - after all, brawls and assaults take place all the time? One possible explanation is that an aircraft is a closed space in the air and therefore escape is not possible as it is when a street fight occurs. So everybody is vulnerable.

The possibility of isolating the person in a closed space is not possible and the fear of the event escalating into the takeover of the aircraft or a major air disaster is never far from peoples' minds. This makes air rage unique and therefore more terrifying in the public imagination.

Air rage is defined as disruptive or violent behaviour perpetrated by passengers or crew, usually during flight. The behaviours covered include obnoxious behaviour, unruliness, threats to bomb the aircraft, anger or violence, refusal to follow the safety regulations and undue anger.

Even such a broad definition doesn't encompass all the behaviours associated with air rage. For example, in 1995 an intoxicated investment banker on a flight from Buenos Aries to New York defecated on the food cart when he was refused alcohol.

Alcohol is routinely believed to be the most common cause of air rage. Imbibing alcohol in a pressured cabin where the air is less dense alters the way the body processes oxygen in the blood. A rule of thumb is that one drink while flying has the same effect as two or three on the ground. Some flights provide alcohol generously, while passengers treat themselves to a few drinks to mark the beginning of a well-deserved holiday, and those who are anxious flyers use it to reduce their stress levels.

To this add the role of modern flying conditions. With increasing cheap flights available to hungry consumers, flights are overbooked, leading to arguments even before check-in begins. The pre-flight vetting is extremely stress-inducing, having to remove coats, jewellery, belts, shoes, display your liquid toiletries in a see-through sealed bag and still face the possibility of a hand search on the other side of the detection equipment.

Then long queues at the security belts and trying to enter the aircraft itself increase passenger exhaustion and frustration.

By the time the aircraft is boarded many are at the end of their tether. The overhead bins then become a battleground as bags are twisted and moulded to take yet another wheely case. Leg room is only fit for sardines and the tilt of the seat backwards is for many a further intrusion into what is left of personal space.

The fault line between calm and anger when seated may be the arm rest if actual physical contact between elbows or forearms takes place. The services on board are frequently abysmal with a sense that the staff is detached and disinterested, preferring to chew gum instead of greeting the passengers on arrival.

Frequently, no help is offered with putting baggage in the overhead bins. As one steward was reported as saying when asked to assist an elderly person with his bag "You bring, you swing". The heady mix of alcohol, stress and frustration is for some, overwhelming.

None of these observations are to justify air rage but to explain that while some of those who engage in this may be no different from street fighters, some are not. Perhaps it is time for the airlines and airports to at least consider the contribution that their practices might make to these annoying, distressing and potentially dangerous occurrences.

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