Air rage Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Uncontrolled verbal abuse or physical violence caused by frustration connected to problems related to commercial flying.

Manifestations of Air Rage

Air rage takes a number of forms. Frequently it results in unpleasant, abusive verbal exchanges between passengers and airline personnel. Even when the manifestations of air rage are merely verbal, they create problems by distracting airline employees from the jobs they should be doing and leaving them unnerved as they go about serving other passengers. Verbal exchanges also occasionally escalate into physical assaults, so once passengers show signs of acute frustration through shouting or speaking rudely, those who deal with them must be vigilant to ensure that the situation does not escalate into greater violence. Most air rage occurs in the confined space of an aircraft that is often flying 5 or more miles above the earth at speeds of just under 10 miles a minute. These factors imbue such situations with the potential for extreme danger.

Air rage is usually verbal rather than physical. This type of anger may attract considerable attention because it frequently involves raised voices, loud shouting, acrimonious outbursts against the airline and its personnel, and the unbridled use of vulgar language. It may be accompanied by intoxication, a condition heightened when people drink in the controlled environment of an airliner. Most people get drunk more quickly at an altitude of 30,000 feet than they would at sea level.

Although air rage is usually directed at airline employees, particularly flight attendants, it may also be directed at fellow passengers. When this is the case, flight attendants become involved quite quickly. They can often control the situation by moving unruly passengers to seats away from the object of their anger, although this is not consistently a fail-safe solution.

Some Causes of Air Rage

During 2000, 615 million ticketed passengers flew on the airlines of the United States. Airport facilities have become so overtaxed by the dramatic increase in air travel that the once-friendly skies are perceived by many travelers as being quite unfriendly. Among the major complaints voiced by those who fly are late departures and arrivals, the cancellation of scheduled flights because of bad weather or mechanical problems, overbooking, substantial differences in air fares on the same flight, and lost luggage.

Crowded on-board conditions, especially when flights are full, adds to the frustration of fliers, particularly if they have been flying uninterruptedly for many hours as long-distance travelers are sometimes forced to do. Many airlines attempt to avoid serving in-flight meals, which are expensive. Passengers who drink and do not eat become intoxicated quickly, particularly in the controlled atmosphere of an airplane and particularly if they have been without sleep for extended periods. Intoxication can cause some drinkers to become hostile and aggressive.

Flying, especially on flights lasting more than three hours, causes many people to become disoriented, a condition that drinking can intensify dramatically. Another factor in some incidents of air rage is the airlines’ prohibition of in-flight smoking. People who are dependent on nicotine are forced to undergo extended periods without it from the time they enter an airport until the time, often as much as ten hours later, when they leave it. This deprivation can lead to irritability in otherwise serene people.

Air rage is not new. In 1969, rock musician Jim Morrison, of the band The Doors, and a traveling companion were ejected from a flight because they were drunk, smoking cigars, and making very loud obscene statements. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated the behavior of the “long-haired hippies,” thereby inaugurating what became a rather substantial FBI file on the singer. Air rage is, however, on the increase and increasing attention has been focused on it and on such related issues as road rage and ground rage.

Ground rage is usually directed against those who check passengers in for their flights. Often passengers become frustrated by long check-in lines. If, after waiting thirty minutes, passengers are told that flights on which they have reservations have been canceled or oversold, so they cannot be accommodated, they may be pushed beyond the limits of their endurance and may direct their anger toward the ticket agent, even though this person had nothing to do with creating the situation that understandably frustrates the passenger.

Other situations can provoke violent behavior, as was the case when the small child of one passenger wandered from the boarding area onto the boarding platform. The child’s father tried to push past the ticket kiosk to retrieve his errant child, but was restrained. He struck out at the airline personnel who were trying to hold him back. Eventually, he pushed one of them with such vigor that the agent’s neck was broken.

In this case, the angry father was arrested and brought to trial, an outcome that most airlines prefer to avoid. The court found against the plaintiffs, Continental Airlines and the injured agent, and acquitted the defendant of the charges against him, citing extenuating circumstances.

The Extent of Air Rage

Statistics on air rage vary considerably. U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein of California estimated that some five thousand cases occur annually, whereas airline officials estimated the number at about three thousand. In contrast, flight attendants, who must deal with it frequently, suggest that nine thousand is a more accurate number.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officially recorded 314 cases in 2000, and 592 cases in 1998 and 1999 combined. However, United Air Lines alone reported 1,075 cases during those two years. The incidents of air rage reported by United dropped from 310 in 1999 to 266 the following year, probably because of a dramatic increase in the legal penalties that air rage can incur.

The Legal Consequences of Air Rage

In October, 2000, a notable air rage incident occurred on American Airlines Flight 67 from London to Chicago. Jorgen Kragh, a fifty-three-year-old Danish businessman, became incensed when the passenger in front of him reclined her seat. He pushed the seat forward and banged on it to the point that its occupant had to get up. A flight attendant attempted to control the situation, but Kragh became irrational and threatening.

The flight captain, informed of the situation, radioed ahead to the Bangor International Airport in Maine, where he subsequently landed. A specially trained team of police officers boarded the plane and arrested Kragh. Bangor’s airport, which has eight to twelve such emergency landings in a typical year, maintains a special team to deal with them. It handles the necessary paperwork expeditiously, so that the landing planes may continue without undue delays. In this case, the plane was en route to Chicago in less than an hour and a half.

Kragh, confined to jail, the next day entered a no-contest plea upon arraignment in Bangor. He was sentenced to twenty-one days in prison and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine. Legally, he might have been jailed for a considerably longer time and fined $25,000 for each incident of violence.

Jeff Russell, the marketing manager for Bangor’s airport, notes that during the peak summer season, between four hundred and seven hundred international flights a day pass over Bangor, so that the percentage of flights diverted to Bangor because of air rage is minuscule. In one five-week period in the summer of 2000, three flights landed because of air rage incidents.

Ways to Deal with Air Rage

As air rage became an increasing concern in the last half of the 1990’s, it grew increasingly apparent that measures had to be taken to control it. In April, 2000, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that increased the civil fine from $1,100 to $25,000 for each violation. A single incident can involve several violations, each punishable by a separate fine. To this can be added $10,000 in civil penalties and the possibility of up to twenty years in prison.

This legislation apparently has restrained some impassioned air travelers, although air rage is not under complete control. Frank Del Gandio, manager of the FAA’s Recommendation and Safety Analysis Division, fears that if the matter is left unchecked, air rage will eventually result in the loss of one or more commercial aircraft. Brian Poole, head of the Safety Analysis branch of the FAA’s Office of Accident Investigation, cautions, however, that in dealing with air rage, one must differentiate between what is rude and what is dangerous.

Alarmed at the danger air rage poses, Senator Feinstein in July, 2000, urged airline officials to limit the number of drinks flight attendants could serve to each passenger on a single flight. She suggested a two-drink limit, although those on flights that require a change of planes might still drink enough to become intoxicated and abusive under Feinstein’s plan. Some people have urged the airlines to ban all alcoholic beverages from planes just as they banned smoking in the 1990’s. Airline officials fear that if this is done, passengers will bring their own liquor onto the plane and drink more than they would have, had they been able to order drinks from the flight attendants.

Certainly alcohol has been a contributing factor in more than one case of air rage. In April, 2001, a twenty-two-year-old woman on United Air Lines’ Flight 857 from San Francisco to Shanghai drank too much. When the flight attendant refused to serve her additional drinks, adhering to the practice among bartenders who observe their customers becoming drunk, the young woman punched the flight attendant in the face. The flight was diverted to Anchorage, Alaska, where the assailant and her twin sister were arrested. The U.S. District Attorney in Anchorage sought over $50,000 in damages from the two sisters and recommended jail time for each of them.

The diversion of this flight greatly inconvenienced over two hundred passengers, causing one passenger to miss her brother’s funeral, and causing countless others to miss appointments, connections, and events dependent on their timely arrival. Certainly any penalties exacted from those whose air rage causes flights to be diverted can in no way compensate the scores of passengers whose plans are compromised by such a diversion.

The FAA has prepared a brochure that defines air rage and outlines the penalties for those who engage in it. The fifty-thousand-member Association of Flight Attendants urges better training of airline personnel to deal with air rage. It also has asked that the penalties for air rage be posted in airport bars and restaurants.

Statistically, the incidents of air rage are small compared with the large numbers of people who fly every year. Nevertheless, air rage is a present and real danger to all who fly and must be dealt with effectively if the skies are to be safe.

  • Curtis, Wayne. “Uncivil Aviation: How a Small City’s Airport Became the Capital of Air Rage.” Atlantic Monthly 287 (April, 2000). A thorough discussion of how Bangor, Maine, has become a major facility for expelling unruly airline passengers.
  • Newman, Maria. “Man Found Not Guilty of Attack on Airline Worker.” The New York Times, August 25, 2000. Newman provides details about the acquittal of an airline passenger who broke the neck of a gate agent attempting to restrain him.
  • Tanz, Jason. “FAA Faces Air Rage.” Fortune 143 (April, 2001). Tanz provides telling statistics about the prevalence of air rage on American air carriers.

Air carriers

Airline industry, U.S.

Commercial flight

Flight attendants

Passenger regulations

Safety issues

A flight attendant holds a “report card” summarizing her union’s discontent with official reaction to the increase in so-called air rage incidents.

(AP/Wide World Photos)
Categories: History