Flying in the age of air rage

When pilots are stabbed to death and flight attendants are taken to the hospital in ambulances, the skies are out of control.

Published September 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

On Dec. 16, 1997, aboard US Airways flight 38 bound for Baltimore from Los Angeles, Dean Trammel, a muscular 200-pound college football player, began wandering the aisle, tapping passengers on the shoulder with a pillow. "Touch me and you'll live forever," he said, offering his own version of eternal salvation. "We're all going to go to heaven." Some passengers were visibly irritated. Others became afraid.

Flight attendant Renee Sheffer, a former psychiatric nurse, instantly recognized that the passenger was experiencing a psychotic episode. Sheffer knew what to do. She didn't confront him physically, and she didn't rebuke him. Instead, the 12-year flight attendant calmly guided the passenger -- who had begun proclaiming that he was Jesus Christ -- to the rear galley, away from passengers, whose complaints were becoming increasingly more vocal. She spoke in a soothing voice and managed, or so it seemed, to get him to relax. He closed his eyes, knelt on the carpet and began a mumbling, nonsensical prayer.

Then he grabbed her breast.

She recoiled.

"I'm sorry!" he said.

Suddenly, his demeanor changed from apologetic to purposeful. "I need to bless the pilots," he said. "I need to deliver a message to them."

Despite Sheffer's pleas, Trammel headed up the aisle toward the cockpit. The veteran flight attendant understood what could result should a mentally disturbed passenger -- especially a physically powerful one -- breach the cockpit door. She immediately grabbed the phone. "A male passenger is coming to try to get into the cockpit," she said. "You better prepare yourselves."

A quick-thinking first-class flight attendant blocked the cockpit door with a service cart. But when Trammel approached and insisted he be let in, the two got into a tussle. The flight attendant was shoved to the floor.

By now, Sheffer had arrived. Once again she tried to calm Trammel. There was a brief argument as he insisted on being let into the cockpit, then she was able to convince him to return to the rear of the plane. At some point, however, Trammel became enraged. With a sudden swipe of his arm, he flung Sheffer's 114-pound body across three rows of seats. She crashed into the rear bulkhead and slid like a rag doll to the airplane floor.

Having witnessed the attack, a U.S. Marines MP and two off-work US Airways pilots wrestled Trammel to the ground. A fourth male passenger jumped in to help. The pilots obtained handcuffs. Someone grabbed seat-belt extensions and Trammel, still thrashing, clawing and blabbering, was finally tied up by his wrists, elbows, ankles, knees and legs. The plane landed with the two off-duty pilots sitting on top of him.

During the melee, Trammel had kicked Sheffer into an exit door and repeatedly bit the men who were trying to restrain him. According to witnesses, blood was splattered everywhere. Two of the men sustained bite wounds and cuts. And Sheffer suffered internal bleeding, kidney and bladder trauma, spinal trauma, a separated shoulder, a torn meniscus in her right knee, bruises on her back and stomach, cuts and abrasions. Later, she would suffer from post-traumatic stress.

When flight 38 finally landed in Baltimore, Sheffer was rushed by ambulance to a hospital. Trammel was taken into custody by police. He was released the same night and later scheduled to appear in court to face charges of aggravated assault and interference with a flight crew.

Despite admitting to the FBI that he had taken LSD before the flight, and despite the physical and mental damage inflicted upon flight attendant Sheffer, Trammel never went to prison. District Judge Catherine Blake found the defendant guilty of assault and reckless endangerment of an aircraft but nevertheless ruled he was not criminally responsible for his actions because he was "mentally ill" and had experienced a "psychotic episode." He was slapped with a $1,500 punitive fine (which, according to Sheffer, he has yet to pay), three years' probation and 150 hours of community service, he was forced to undergo psychiatric treatment and, for a three-year period that is still under way, he is required to obtain written permission from an airline before boarding one of its flights.

As a result of the attack, Renee Sheffer was forced to undergo three separate operations. Later this fall, after nearly two years of recuperation, she will finally return to work at US Airways. But the skies won't be as friendly as she once believed them to be. She worries about being victimized in another in-flight attack.

In an Aug. 17 Associated Press article by Joanna Weiss, a behavioral expert, explained reasons for the air rage phenomenon that is gaining nationwide attention: "Boston University psychologist Tom Cottle said air travel is a breeding ground for anxiety: fear of death, discomfort in crowds, separation from home and family, fouled-up sleep cycles. The 'mysterious sociology,' he said, also includes restrictions on where to stand or park your car, language that's used nowhere else ('your final destination'), class tensions evoked at the baggage counter: 'This line, which is very short, is for the first class, and this line is for the rest of you slobs.'"

Acts of air rage are occurring with increasing regularity and maliciousness. While the Trammel-Sheffer incident was triggered by a psychotic break, similar in-flight attacks are often fueled by liquor, drugs or stress. Sometimes they stem from a passenger's basic inability to control violent and aggressive behavior.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, airlines flying within U.S. airspace reported 283 incidents of disruptive behavior in 1998. These incidents ran the gamut of behavioral maladies, from severely rude and obnoxious behavior -- for example, a passenger verbally threatening to punch an attendant -- to outright physical assault. Compared to the 121 incidents reported in 1994, this figure suggests that in-flight violence in the United States has more than doubled in the last five years. But this statistic reveals only the tip of a dangerous -- and enormous -- iceberg.

Because the FAA records only those incidents that airlines choose to disclose, the actual number of assaults is seriously underreported. Recognizing a similar problem across the Atlantic, Britain's Civil Aviation Authority, counterpart to the FAA, mandated this spring that British airlines report every incident involving disruptive or dangerous passengers and include information such as whether alcohol was a factor. Until the FAA adopts a similar program here in the United States, the understanding and eradication of sky rage will be hampered by inconclusive statistics and the arbitrary interpretations that result.

United Airlines, to its credit, is one of the few U.S. carriers willing to disclose accurate information. In 1998, America's largest carrier reported 635 incidents of disruptive behavior by passengers. Of these, 61 were assaults.

In 1998, 84 U.S. carriers transported 614 million passengers on countless commercial flights. If a single airline (United) reported 635 incidents of disruptive behavior, and the FAA recorded only 283 incidents occurring on all 84 carriers -- well, passenger misconduct data collection methods are laughably incompetent.

David Fuscus, vice president of communications at the Air Transport Association, a trade organization representing U.S. airlines, believes there are at least 5,000 acts of passenger misconduct every year. The reasons, he claims, may be rooted in a stressful air-travel environment. "Planes are more crowded, passengers are less comfortable," he says. "But that doesn't excuse violent behavior."

Few will disagree that the modern airport experience is often an unpleasant one. Passengers endure a succession of difficulties: inadequate parking; confusing check-in procedures; long lines at the check-in counter; more lines at security checkpoints; shrinking airplane seats; insufficient overhead bin space; small in-flight meals if any; and maddening numbers of delays caused by a safe but woefully inefficient Air Traffic Control system. "In May alone," says Fuscus, "there were 40,000 air-traffic-control-delays nationwide."

While liquor is often the spark that ignites disruptive behavior, legions of cigarette smokers, unable to light up in airports or on planes, are also to blame. Of the 266 incidents of passenger misconduct recorded by British Airways in 1997, more than half were caused by frustrated smokers. BA has begun the practice of distributing yellow "warning" cards to disruptive people. The cards inform offenders about possible arrest should the disruptive behavior continue.

Patricia Friend understands these problems. As president of the Association of Flight Attendants, the country's largest flight attendant union with 43,000 members, she believes airlines deserve at least some of the blame for the growing numbers of disgruntled, and often violent, passengers. "Airline advertising unrealistically raises expectation," she says. "Passengers expect a fun, comfortable experience -- and much of the time it's not."

Sophisticated television commercials almost always portray a luxurious first-class or business-class experience -- not the cramped, sometimes meal-less misadventures had by many coach-class airline passengers. But small seats, stifling airplanes and unrealized expectations are no justification for the growing number of passengers who assault airline crew members. "It's symptomatic of what's going on in society today," says Friend. "People are rude, less patient and more aggressive. And when you're flying in an airplane at 30,000 feet, you can't dial 911."

Renee Sheffer's husband, Mike, oversees the Sky Rage Foundation, a watchdog organization launched shortly after his wife's brutal attack. Because no government organization is responsible for the accurate collection of in-flight violence data -- or provides easy access to related information -- the Sky Rage Foundation is a concerned traveler's best friend. Its Web site chronicles incidents on its Rage Page, posts updates about pending air-rage court proceedings, gives professional advice on what to do "when a fellow passenger goes ballistic," offers tips on how to avoid trouble in the first place and explains confusing legal issues.

According to Mike Sheffer, the most perplexing difficulty in prosecuting offenders lies with law enforcement jurisdiction. "The moment the airplane door is closed, an onboard assault becomes a federal issue, which is ultimately handled by the FBI," he says. "But after an attack, it's often local law enforcement officers who meet the inbound aircraft. In most cases, local police do not have the authority to arrest a passenger who is suspected of committing a violent act in flight. They can only detain suspects for a 'reasonable' period until FBI agents arrive." If understaffed FBI offices fail to respond promptly (which has been known to happen, especially when an incident is perceived to be less serious), the suspect may be released without punishment.

Two air rage-related bills currently await approval by Congress. One would increase the civil penalty from $1,100 (the same amount imposed on passengers who light up cigarettes) to no more than $25,000 for passengers who assault crew members or otherwise interfere with their duties. Another bill would allow local law enforcement offers to detain and arrest suspects.

Should they be passed into law, these will be welcome antidotes indeed -- especially if you consider the recent rash of air rage incidents:

Oct. 30, 1998: An Airtours charter flight attendant was hit over the head with a large vodka bottle by Steve Handy, a drunken British passenger, who had been asked to stop smoking. The attendant, Fiona Weir, of South London, required 18 stitches to close her head wound. Handy was subsequently banned from flying on any British airline.

Jan. 16, 1999: An intoxicated Briton allegedly punched the door window of a British Airways jet and smashed the inner protective layer, threatening to cause a decompression at 35,000 feet. According to witnesses, the man became abusive halfway through the 14-hour flight. He harassed the woman seated next to him, ripped off her headphones, then bit them in half. After punching the window, he scuffled with four flight attendants and four passengers before finally being overpowered. He is currently on trial for assault and interference with a flight crew.

May 14, 1999: A Senegalese man attacked the pilot and co-pilot of an Air France plane en route to Dakar from Paris. After he was restrained by fellow passengers, an onboard doctor injected him with a tranquilizer. Soon after the injection, the passenger suffered a heart attack and died. One year earlier, an unruly passenger on a Malev Hungarian airliner suffered a similar fate. After he punched a pilot and tried to choke a flight attendant, he was restrained. A doctor injected him with a sedative. The autopsy revealed that his death was caused by a mixture of the tranquilizer and some other drug or alcohol.

July 22, 1999: At Newark International Airport, a 50-year-old Continental Airlines gate agent was allegedly slammed to the floor after telling a passenger to wait at the boarding gate. Angelo Sottile sustained three fractures to his cervical, neck and spine area, and may never walk again. The American suspect, 29-year-old John Davis, has been charged with aggravated assault.

July 23, 1999: Minutes after an All Nippon Airways jumbo jet took off from Tokyo's Haneda Airport, a 28-year-old Tokyo man pulled an 8-inch knife on a flight attendant. He forced his way into the cockpit, told the co-pilot to leave, stabbed Capt. Naoyuki Nagashima in the neck and shoulder, then took control of the aircraft. At one point the plane plunged to within 300 meters of the ground. The co-pilot and two ANA employees stormed the cockpit and overpowered the man. A non-uniformed pilot reportedly landed the plane safely, but Captain Nagashima bled to death. The suspect later told investigators he liked to play flight simulation games and wanted to fly a real plane.

July 24, 1999: Hung Cong Duong, a Vietnamese citizen, was arrested at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Duong was upset because flight attendants had told him to wait his turn after he got up from his seat and demanded a drink. An FBI spokesman said "he overturned the drink tray, and hot coffee spilled on a lady and her baby." On the way back to his seat, Duong allegedly assaulted two more passengers. A 12-year-old girl suffered bruises along the way.

July 29, 1999: A U.S. citizen identified only as Roderick W. became enraged when he learned that his British Airways flight would be landing at Heathrow Airport instead of Gatwick. During his subsequent violent on-board outburst, one crew member was slightly injured. While he was being escorted off the plane and into the terminal by law enforcement officers, the passenger grabbed an officer's gun. He fired at the officer and then at himself; luckily, the weapon failed to discharge.

Aug. 14, 1999: After punching a British Airways crew member on a flight to Singapore, Richard John Weeden was arrested and charged with four counts of assault and for being drunk on an aircraft. He pleaded guilty and is currently serving a one-year sentence in a Singapore prison. Two weeks earlier, on another British Airways flight, a Danish woman punched another passenger and assaulted a crew member. She was handcuffed to her seat and taken away by police upon arrival. On Aug. 5, aboard a Singapore Airlines flight, an American man went on a drunken rampage and is currently serving a six-month prison term.

Incidents such as these have forced countries to take a hard stand against in-flight misbehavior of any sort. The United Kingdom -- unhampered by law enforcement jurisdictional restrictions that exist in the United States, and recognized for its no-nonsense approach to airline safety and security issues -- has become a leader in the prosecution of violent airline passengers. Responding to a 400 percent increase in violent attacks during the past three years, British courts have begun to routinely dispense three-year jail terms for air-ragers. Ian Bottomly, a South African plumber, received such a sentence after flying into a rage when told by a British Airways captain to cease watching pornography on his laptop computer.

The British government has clamped down so hard, in fact, that British Airways passenger Neil Whitehouse was recently sentenced to 12 months in jail for refusing to switch off his cellular phone during a flight from Madrid to Manchester. Though Whitehouse's sentence may seem extreme, Judge Anthony Ensor was reportedly angered by the man's "arrogance and disdain" when refusing to hand over his phone to pilot David Travis after being told it might interfere with navigation. Whitehouse had replied: "Why? Are we going to get lost?" After passing judgement, Judge Ensor said, "Any sentence must not only punish you, but act as a warning to others who might be inclined to behave similarly."

Though U.S. courts have yet to pass similar judgments against in-flight cellular phone abusers, they have begun to crack down on violent flyers. Gary Lee Lougee, a Georgia native, is currently serving a 51-month prison term for attacking a US Airways flight attendant and threatening to throw her off the airplane because she refused to serve him more alcohol.

In another alcohol-related incident, British passenger Christopher Bayes was recently convicted of one misdemeanor charge of assault aboard a Delta Airlines jet. On June 5 the plane was forced to divert to Maine's Bangor International Airport after Bayes threw punches and touched two female flight attendants in a sexually suggestive way. According to court records, he had consumed six or seven beers before boarding. He consumed two more drinks in first class and was then cut off by flight attendants who claimed he was loud and abusive. He became enraged, tossed salad on another passenger and punched flight attendant Mario Garcia, who attempted to restrain him. Bayes' lip was cut during the ensuing melee. Later, he spat blood at Garcia, who held him on the floor until the plane landed. A mistrial let Bayes off the hook for the more serious felony charge of interference with a flight crew, which holds a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. He could receive up to six months for the assault conviction; he will be sentenced in a few weeks.

A handful of U.S. carriers -- including Northwest, TWA and United -- have implemented "zero tolerance" policies to ensure that abusive passengers are banned from flying for life. United Airlines customers so designated will receive severance letters from company management, says spokeswoman Kristina Price. "The letters will say, 'You are no longer welcome on our airline.'"

The largest airline in the United States has thrown a one-two punch in the fight against physically abusive passengers. Unlike many airlines, United's in-house attorneys dispense free legal advice to employees victimized by angry passengers. When an employee is required to testify against a defendant, he or she is given time off with pay. "We will not tolerate physical assaults," says Price. "Employees have the right to be safe at work."

By Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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