Tempers soar sky high

Before you board that plane after your holiday, take a few deep breaths and learn how to relax, or you could become another air-rage statistic, putting hundreds of lives at risk.

According to the Skyrage Foundation in New York, air rage is increasing at a disturbing rate a fourfold increase worldwide over the past three years. This appears to be due to airlines’ cost-cutting measures from cramming extra rows of seats into the cabin to cutting the percentage of fresh oxygen that increase passenger stress levels and, in turn, air rage.

Air rage includes disruptive passenger behaviour anything from non- compliance with safety instructions to verbal abuse and physical assault directed at staff, other passengers or the aircraft. South African airlines are no exception to increased air rage incidents, although South African Airways (SAA) denies this.

Still, after a widely publicised incident last month when rugby players bound for Buenos Aires got so drunk they fondled female passengers and crew while singing vulgar songs, SAA is considering new measures including security guards and handcuffs. Most other airlines also deny that air rage is on the increase, except for British Airways (BA) representative Jackie van der Berg, who said: “Contributing factors could be kids on planes, smoke and oxygen deprivation.”

She said BA is conducting research to ascertain causes for air rage and has given the government its full backing to make air rage a criminal offence. The South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu) says air rage in this country is a serious problem. South Africa will soon join the International Transport Federation’s (ITF) recently launched world- wide zero-tolerance air rage campaign.

“The abuse that our members suffer at the hands of passengers, the klapping, swearing, shouting and manhandling is reaching unacceptable levels. Most of the abusers happen to be drunk,” says Satawu national organiser Andrew Maswanganye. He says that the union will soon conduct awareness campaigns on how passengers should conduct themselves on flights.

One SAA air hostess complains that she’s had far too many flights with unruly passengers, especially rugby and soccer players. “Rugby players are the worst. They become very loud, drink lots of beer and brandy and coke; I work very hard on those flights. “American and Nigerian passengers are the rudest and complain about everything. They don’t say please or thank you, they bark orders at you, and with female attendants they won’t press the call button, they’ll touch you instead to get your attention.”

She says South African business-class passengers on domestic routes are similar to Nigerians, in their “I’m full of money” attitude. Skyrage’s estimate of air rage incidence is conservative when compared with ITF reports. The association’s surveys show a five-fold increase in incidents (for instance, in 1994 there were 1 132 incidents and in 1997 there were 5 416).

And, according to the United States Aviation Safety Reporting System, unruly behaviour among passengers has increased by 800%; in 1997 there were 66 incidents and in 1999 534. In 1999 Australian airlines reported 650 incidents, but in the previous year there were 30. The ITF, which represents tens of thousands of cabin crew around the world, this year announced a zero-tolerance air rage campaign. The aim is to pressure the industry to improve procedures and practices on flights and for governments around the world to improve laws in an urgent attempt to curb air rage.

Skyrage attributes air rage to a “fear of flying, which is often associated with a loss of control. Air travel can produce extreme anxiety, especially for those who are accustomed to being in control. Excessive alcohol consumption is another cause, where passengers have begun their journey in the airport pub, then continued to be served drinks by cabin staff unaware of the previous alcohol intake. It is estimated that 30% of in-flight incidents involve the excessive consumption of alcohol.”

But alcohol an old-time “baddie” on flights is not solely responsible for the increased rate of rage in the air. New flight conditions are contributing towards tempers soaring sky high. These include decreased oxygen, total smoking bans, less leg-room in economy class as airlines try to increase yields by squeezing more passengers in, and reduced and less-experienced cabin crews.

Pumping oxygen consumes fuel, so to reduce costs most airlines are cutting fresh oxygen supplies to cabins, according to Skyrage. “When this happens, the cabin air intake is lower; the air circulation rate is slower, and oxygen deprivation occurs.” Oxygen deprivation leads to sudden loss of brainpower and so increases the possibility of an air rage incident.

An aviation expert says on many airlines oxygen is recirculated in economy class, but in first and business class fresh oxygen is pumped in more frequently. However, every airline contacted denied that there were different types of oxygen in the different classes.

BA representative Steven Forbes said 50% of the air is pure oxygen; the proportion is the same throughout the plane and this is changed every two to three days. Skyrage says restricted smoking in airports and the banning of on-board smoking are big culprits, especially on long-haul flights, and have resulted in a 50% increase in air rage.

When air rage targets the pilot the safety of the whole flight is endangered. When cabin crew are sworn and shouted at or, in extreme situations, assaulted, the pilot sometimes has to leave the cockpit.

“When a situation dictates that a pilot must leave the flight deck to attend to such problems several safety issues arise. Not only are half the crew absent from the cockpit, but both pilots become apprehensive and distracted from their duties. Furthermore, the absent pilot could be assaulted, as has happened on occasion. If this situation arises at a critical phase of flight, results could be catastrophic,” says Skyrage.

ITF’s assistant general secretary Stuart Howard says of the zero- tolerance air rage campaign: “It is a wake-up call. It is only a matter of time before one of these incidents causes a major disaster.” About 100 countries around the world are participating in the campaign.

The campaign in the United Kingdom has been backed by the UK government, which has created a new criminal offence such that “offenders on all incoming flights can be prosecuted”, says Howard. Most airlines seem to be concentrating on a clampdown on offenders rather than removing the causes of air rage. American Airlines is a notable exception: it has begun removing nine rows of seats from all economy sections to increase legroom.

“This is a commercial move that is proving to be highly successful, as it makes flights more comfortable; it gives us a competitive edge. It was done after studying our customer surveys,” says American Airlines sales manager Jim Weighell, adding, optimistically: “The rest of the world will follow this trend.”


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