A drunken grandmother aboard a British Airways flight punches an attendant in the face three times. An impatient man flying to Florida urinates on a flight attendant’s leg. An unruly passenger en route to Austin, Texas, hurls books and magazines and generally goes berserk, forcing an emergency landing. That passenger’s occupation? Airline pilot.
Welcome to the unfriendly skies, where some people hate to fly—and it shows. Now commonly known as air rage, the phenomenon is coming under fresh scrutiny these days, as incidents of obnoxious and downright dangerous passenger behavior increases. The Federal Aviation Administration cites 1,173 such incidents since 1995 but only counts officially reported cases. According to the International Air Transport Association, there were some 5,500 incidents worldwide in 1997 alone. “We’re witnessing a growing trend in unruly and out-of-control passengers,” says Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, who cosponsored a bill passed this April that raised air-rage fines from $1,100 to $25,000 and made it easier to arrest offenders.
Experts trace the increase in air-rage incidents back to the early ’80s, when deregulation increased competition and forced carriers to move more passengers to keep up profits. Adding to the stress of crowded planes, longer delays and smaller seats is the free flow of alcohol. “You’ve got hungry passengers who are drinking too much,” says Association of Flight Attendants executive William Lehman. “That’s a recipe for a very, very bad flight.”
Tougher laws and better attendant training should help, as would more reasonable passengers. “Some people misbehave because they can,” says Capt. Stephen Luckey of the Air Line Pilots Association. The problem on planes, he adds, is that “we don’t have 911 and we can’t pull over.” On the following pages are some startling examples of the kind of behavior that makes pilots wish that they could.
Warned to stop viewing porno on his laptop, a plumber flies out of control
The trouble started one hour into British Airways Flight 056 from Johannesburg to London on Jan. 16, 1999. That’s when two passengers complained that they could see another passenger, Ian Bottomley, a 36-year-old plumber and South African native, viewing pornography on his laptop computer. Michael Stevenson, the flight’s chief steward, approached Bottomley and asked him to log off the offensive site. “I told the gentleman that people said it was really hardcore stuff and that it was illegal to import it to the U.K.,” Stevenson later testified in court. The warning triggered a torrent of threats and profanities from Bottomley, who “jumped out of his seat and just lunged at me with both fists,” Stevenson said.
Dr. Gregory Minnaar, 27, a pediatric resident in Birmingham, England, watched as the stocky Bottomley threw Stevenson to the floor, bit him on the arm and resisted the efforts of six crew members—three of whom were injured—to restrain him. “He was very aggressive and completely out of his mind,” says Minnaar of Bottomley, who according to testimony had been drinking prior to the flight and told crew members “I’m going to kill you” before they handcuffed him and strapped him to a back-row seat.
At the request of the crew, Minnaar injected Bottomley with diazepam, a sedative, and monitored him for the rest of the 12-hour flight. “I tried to talk him down, but there was no way you could,” she says. “If you came close to him, he’d hit your head with his head.” Police arrested Bottomley when the plane—to which he did at least $10,000 in damage—landed in London, and in May 1999 he received a three-year sentence for assault and endangering a plane and its passengers. (His lawyer declined PEOPLE’S request for a comment.) “I thought [the crew members] were going to kill me,” Bottomley testified in his defense. “I resisted. It was a survival instinct.”
The incident “was quite upsetting for a lot of people,” says Minnaar, who was sent a pair of business-class tickets by British Airways for her trouble. And while the ground crew had warned attendants before takeoff that Bottomley had been drinking, they didn’t anticipate the disastrous consequences of allowing him onboard. “We believe that the first line of defense is to keep air rage off of the plane,” says Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “We need to empower the ground crew to say, ‘Sorry, we’re not boarding you on this flight.’ ”
An angry professor gives a flight attendant wring-around-the-collar
On March 18, 1999, U.S. Airways flight attendant Sam Bishop was serving drinks on Flight 677 out of Pittsburgh en route to South Bend, Ind. All seemed routine as he approached passenger David Waldstreicher, then an assistant history professor at Yale University. Waldstreicher picked up a bag of peanuts, slammed it on a tray and glared at him, says Bishop, who has been a flight attendant for 23 years. Then, says Bishop, Waldstreicher flew into a rage, screaming, “Get out of my face!” When the tirade subsided, the attendant says he asked, “Are you finished?”
Bishop, now 42, of Springfield, Va., got his answer when he returned to pick up used cups and trash. After discussing the matter with his fiancée, Waldstreicher, now 34, had decided to ask for Bishop’s name. But the flight attendant was in shirtsleeves and not wearing an identification pin. According to Bishop, Waldstreicher barked, “Where’s your badge?” and lunged at Bishop, grabbing his collar and angrily yanking his tie.
Waldstreicher, who paid the $1,100 he was fined by the FAA—at the time the maximum federal penalty for unruly in-flight behavior—claims Bishop provoked the confrontation by making “one rude statement after another.” In his defense, Waldstreicher, now 34 and an associate professor at Notre Dame, says this was his third flight of the day, he was trying to work and not interested in a drink. He claims Bishop “mocked me” when he declined, making a “theatrical gesture” with his hand to hurry up and reply. (Witnesses told police that Bishop remained calm and professional throughout the flight.) After he had asked Bishop about his badge, Waldstreicher says Bishop waved his finger close to his face and loudly proclaimed, “Oh, no. Don’t even go there!” Although he admits he shouted at Bishop, he insists that it was only because Bishop continued to lean over him, waving his hand and berating him, that he “lightly yanked his tie for a second or two, tops” to get Bishop’s attention.
He succeeded. Three passengers rushed to restrain him, and the pilot radioed ahead to make sure police were waiting at the gate to arrest Waldstreicher in South Bend. “If you went through the cabin at the beginning of the flight and asked me to pick out one of the two people who would have gone berserk, you would have walked right by this guy,” says Bishop. “And you would have been wrong.”
Three kids get caught in an explosion of temper
As they boarded the Spirit Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale to Atlantic City on July 9, 1998, 12-year-old Jarrett Liebman and his sisters Maxi, 10, and Ashley, 9, were excited and happy to be flying alone for the first time. After all, the children had made the trip from their home in Parkland, Fla., to visit their grandmother often enough with their parents, and relatives were waiting to meet them at the other end. They could hardly have expected their bizarre encounter with Celeste Keenan, a dancer from Pompano Beach, Fla., who was seated directly behind them.
Even before takeoff, Keenan’s behavior was unsettling. As soon as she boarded the 164-seat MD-80, she complained of a foul odor near the rear of the plane and began spraying perfume around the cabin, cursing flight attendant Angelique Paluzzi when Paluzzi asked her to stop. After takeoff, according to court testimony by passenger Karen Freedman, Keenan, 37, screamed at the Liebman children for moving around in their seats. She quieted down only when she fell asleep, her feet propped against Jarrett’s seat. Then Jarrett reclined and woke her. “Sit the f—- up, you little s—-!” yelled Keenan. Then she pulled her knees to her chest and kicked Jarrett’s seat so hard it collapsed on him.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Paluzzi, who rushed to the children after passengers alerted her and found Jarrett unhurt but pinned beneath the wreckage of his seat. Maxi and Ashley were crying hysterically. Paluzzi comforted the children and moved them forward and other flight attendants took statements from passengers. As one of the children later testified, Keenan threatened to kill them and sue their parents. “It was a shock that anyone could act that way,” says Paluzzi, then 24 and only six months on the job.
At her sentencing in Camden, N.J., in December, Keenan, convicted of assault, blamed her behavior on a previously undiagnosed bipolar disorder for which she said she had been placed on medication. But U.S. Magistrate Joel Rosen was unmoved. He sentenced her to three months house arrest, 200 hours of community service and more than $16,000 in fines and restitution. Meanwhile, Spirit Air has banned Keenan from its flights. And the Liebmans are suing her for traumatizing their children, who they say are still haunted by the incident. “You can’t get even as a parent,” says father Scott, 39, who co-owns a trophy business, “but this is the only way to get even for my children.”
Bruce Frankel and Alex Tresniowski
Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles, Matt Birkbeck in New York City, Susan Gray and Margery Sellinger in Washington, D.C., and Ellen Tumposky in London