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Coping With Passengers Who Get High in the Sky

February 22, 1987|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

On a flight between London and Houston a passenger climbed into an overhead luggage rack and refused to come down until a stewardess took off her blouse.

On a flight between Berlin and Zurich a woman passenger rushed for the cockpit door, insisting on seeing the captain. When a flight attendant asked her to sit down, the woman took a swing at her. The flight attendant wrestled the woman to the floor and spent the next 30 minutes sitting on the passenger.

And 38 members of an Australian football team on their way to the United States were thrown off a flight in Honolulu after food fights broke out in the cabin and 12 airline seats were ripped out of the plane.

What do all these incidents have in common? Excessive drinking by passengers.

"We think the drinking problem has become quite serious," says Cindy Yeast, spokeswoman for the Assn. of Flight Attendants (AFA), an organization that represents 21,000 flight attendants.

"Flight attendants are being physically abused by drunk passengers, and there are safety problems as well," she says.

'Flagrant Abuse'

"Drunks are accepted in America," Yeast says. "The whole nation is worried about drugs and yet we have this flagrant abuse of alcohol in the air. We have to face the facts that there are a lot of alcoholic passengers flying on airplanes."

The real problem, Yeast argues, "is that the airlines don't want to do anything about it."

One reason, perhaps, is that the airlines make a lot of money serving booze. Almost 30% of all air travelers order a drink. Last year the airlines served more than 12 million tiny bottles of alcohol to passengers and earned more than $400 million in sales.

"On some of our European and African routes," says David Coltman, president of British Caledonian Airways, "we offer free liquor. But on transatlantic routes, where air fares are already quite depressed, we sell the booze. It does generate income," he says.

As a result, as many flights go up, up and away, many passengers are already gone.

One very drunk group was arrested for starting fisticuffs in the sky over Spain. Ironically, a TWA flight attendant was only able to stop a drunk passenger who was trying to take out a window exit during flight by dousing him with champagne.

"Consumption of grape juice (wine, champagne) is certainly increasing faster than hard liquor," says David Bell, spokesman for Cathay Pacific. "It's still alcohol, and the effect is still the same."

The problem has become so noticeable that at least one Asia-based airline has equipped each of its airplanes with a set of handcuffs that flight attendants can use if necessary to restrain a drunk and unruly passenger. "We've had to anchor some people to their seats a number of times," says a spokesman for the airline.

"No one wants to do anything about it," Yeast says. "We feel we're in the middle because the airlines don't want the publicity either. And they won't back us up," she says "unless it's really a severe case. The airlines," she charges, "almost want you to be beaten up by a drunken terrorist before they will get involved."

In addition, few airline captains want to press charges against drunk passengers; it means having to return to the city where the passenger was arrested to testify if the case goes to trial. As a result, most airline captains elect to land and deplane the drunk passenger rather than create a bigger scene.

"The problem," one pilot says, "is one of priorities. If some guy lit up a joint on an airplane, there'd be a quick nonscheduled landing, and the guy would be arrested without question. But if he goes through a fifth of liquor, becomes abusive and endangers safety, we put up with it. It's a terrible double standard, and we want alcohol considered in the drug-abuse category."

Don't hold your breath waiting.

Airlines spend a considerable amount of time planning and promoting their alcohol services. Brands are selected carefully and are often distinct by class of travel.

In addition, detailed time and motion studies are often made to determine how long it takes a flight attendant to serve the booze, and how much can be dispensed on any one flight.

Over the Long Haul

But on airlines that have longer flights, the drinking problems can get serious.

"Most of our flights are long hauls," Pan Am spokesman James Arey says. "For the large part," he says, "the amount of liquor we serve passengers is discretionary on the part of the flight crew. We pride ourselves on our ability to recognize when a passenger has had too much to drink. We also do not allow passengers to consume their own booze."

That doesn't stop other passengers from trying. One of the biggest problems about passenger drinking, on international flights, is the additional consumption of duty-free alcohol that has been bought on the flight.

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