Flight Attendants staged protests at airports around the world, saying they've had it with pushy passengers who are making the once-friendly skies downright dangerous.
"You've got an airplane at 35,000 feet, 400 passengers, it only takes one crazy person to break into the cockpit, kill the pilot and 400 people are dead," says Mary Beth Webber.
That very nearly happened earlier this year, when a drunken passenger stormed the cockpit of his Air Alaska Flight and attacked the pilot before he was subdued. This week, a Continental flight was forced to turn around after a passenger threw a can of beer at a flight attendant and bit a pilot on the arm.
"Jet lag, those types of things, are an occupational hazard, but not air rage," said Deborah Wilk of the Association of Flight Attendants. "Violence on the job shouldn't be tolerated."
U.S. air crews have reported a huge increase in unruly passengers, with more than 500 last year after just 66 in 1997.
That's why flight attendants are asking passengers to pressure airlines and airports to do more keep potentially violent passengers off planes. They cite a government study of 152 incidents that found that, 40 percent of the time, the pilot either left the cockpit to deal with the disturbance or was interrupted by flight attendants needing help.
Airline flight crews favor higher fines and notices on tickets that warn that air rage is a punishable crime. The fine for assaulting a crew member is $1,100; disrupting a flight can carry a sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Renee Shafer, a US Airways flight attendant, was featured in an ad campaign following her brutal attack three years ago. "I got kicked in the face, stomach and back," she recalls.
But, at a time when complaints over delays and customer service are soaring, so is the flying publics frustration. While travelers dont condone bad behavior, they do understand the aggravation.
"Now there's much more of a sort of mass, being herded kind of feeling to travel than there is someone providing you with a service," says passenger Seth Goldberg.
Congress recently provided the FAA with a bigger stick to keep passengers in line, giving the agency authority to levy fines up to $25,000. The airlines support the flight attendants, but say air travelers should not be unduly alarmed.
"We have 650 million passengers a year and a few hundred complaints," says David Fuscus of the Air Transport Association.
Flight attendants say the numbers are much higher because many incidents aren't reported and they fear it is only a mater of time before a minor disruption turns into a major disaster.
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