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Civility Flies Away

Disruptive incidents are on the increase in airports and airliners

May 04, 1997

Who hasn't bemoaned the decline of civility in daily life? It seems to surround us: the politician slurring his opponent in the halls of Congress; the lawyer demeaning his adversary in open court; the athlete spitting at an umpire because he disagrees with the call; the guy dumping his garbage on the ground when a trash can is just steps away; the driver tailgating and making obscene gestures.

The rise in loutish behavior in recent years is deplorable. But when it occurs at 30,000 feet up, it is dangerous too. A one-day conference last week in Washington, designed to highlight the problem posed specifically by unruly airline passengers and to outline some solutions, throws light on the broader problem.

The number of reported incidents involving violent or hostile air travelers is small but sharply increasing. Cases of passengers interfering with crews during flights nearly doubled in two years, from 96 in 1993 to 174 in 1995. Those cases, reported to the Federal Aviation Administration, appear to be just the tip of the iceberg. One major carrier reported 882 cases of passenger misconduct in 1995, a broader category that includes physical contact as well as verbal abuse. That number had soared from 296 incidents in 1994.

Behind these statistics are some real knuckleheads: a passenger who punched a pilot in the face when the pilot asked to have a gate agent check the man's ticket; a woman who tried to choke a flight attendant; another who pushed a stewardess to the floor on learning there were no extra sandwiches; a man, furious over missing his flight, who hurled a suitcase at a ground agent.

Alcohol is a big part of the problem, and the stress of travel and crowded planes contributes. Whatever the cause, such behavior is dangerous and thoroughly unacceptable. At the Air Line Pilots Assn. conference, airline officials made it clear they will aggressively prosecute unruly passengers and will take new steps to restrain them on board, by force if necessary.

But as one official noted, "Airline passengers mirror society. They're less willing to accept problems or delays, and many are aggressive." If this is so, what can we do about it?

Nearly half the members of the House of Representatives held a weekend retreat in March to practice being civil to one another. Participants declared it a good start. Bar associations across the country often sponsor seminars for lawyers on professional decorum, and athletes are regularly admonished to be better sports. And the rest of us? There's something called the golden rule. Look it up.

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