Ask the pilot

Is alcohol or basic human depravity the root cause of air rage? Also, the pilot expresses his own rage at questions about drunken aviators.

Published June 11, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

"I have some opinions about the causes of air rage," states reader Chris Edwards. Like many of you, Edwards found my dissection of the topic slightly off kilter. "I used to be a prosecutor, and I find myself driving around town, wondering how many shootings and stabbings and beatings are going on around me. It's my hypothesis that there are no 'causes' or 'triggers' for air rage other than simple human depravity. In fact I would argue there are probably significantly fewer incidents than one would otherwise expect. If you take the same million-plus people who ride on airplanes every day and follow them around, you'd see far more occurrences where customers break bottles over the heads of their bartenders, stab their taxi driver, choke their wives and otherwise lose their minds. Surprise, most of these incidents will happen when the perpetrator is under the influence of alcohol or drugs."

Edwards makes a cogent point. I complained of others unnecessarily deconstructing the air rage phenomenon, but, in a way, I may have done the same thing. If I'm hoping to play the role of aero-provocateur, maybe I should loosen up and call my shots more cleanly. A better summary: People make trouble on airplanes in much the same ways, and for the same reasons, that they make trouble in shopping malls, in the bleachers at baseball games, or for that matter in the privacy of their own homes.

To nobody's amazement, studies reveal that alcohol plays a central role in about 90 percent of air rage incidents, and many suggest the best way to preclude in-flight violence is to ban in-flight booze. On one hand, it's plain to see that the root source of air rage is no more alcohol than the root source of terrorism is the bomb, boxcutter, or handgun. On the other hand, in a jetliner at 37,000 feet, the issue is more critically about the facilitation of overt acts and not their underlying pathologies, if any. Using raw statistics it seems an easy call: Lock away the liquor and episodes of airborne assault are cut by nine-tenths. Except it's never so simple. In the absence of alcohol, a portion of those predisposed to belligerence will find other excuses to rant, rave and break things. In the meantime, airlines make money from those bottles and cans, and the vast majority of passengers who indulge do so peacefully. Neither consumer nor server is eager to do away this mainstay of in-flight service.

We also should remember that many of the most hair-raising air rage occurrences have come at the hands of unhinged but otherwise sober individuals. An 18th Amendment of the air would not have prevented the 1999 murder of the All Nippon Airways captain, or the storming of flight decks by deranged fliers at American Airlines, Iberia, Southwest and elsewhere. Post-2001 safety measures and fortified cockpits should sharply reduce the already small number of incidents that endanger everybody on board, while future events -- what shall remain of them -- will be, alas, the simple province of inevitability. Like crashes themselves, they can be reduced to relative insignificance but never entirely thwarted.

The daily passenger total in the United States alone is more than 1.5 million riders. With that kind of volume, it's possible that air rage is more notable in its absence than its presence. Incidents have increased in frequency, yes, but the demographic of the flying public also has become more varied and, let's just say, less buttoned-down. Neither are incidents of rogue probability, such as the in-flight crackup of the mild-mannered businessman who used the galley cart for a toilet, exclusive to the arena of air travel. Borrowing from the FAA's air rage tallies, one Ask the Pilot reader puts it this way: "In 2001 there were 299 events out of -- paging Mr. Google -- 600 million domestic U.S. passengers. Considering that you make a regular point of the safety of air travel, backed up with statistics, it's a little weird to see you spending a whole column on such a apparently insignificant phenomenon."

Two columns, at this point, and the same logic tempts us to say there's no real point in discussing accidents either. But who are we kidding? Both crashes and air rage are destined to spill a lot of ink, deservedly or otherwise.

Next on the list of irrelevant matters, and speaking of alcohol, what about all those pilots failing breathalyzers?

Few things irk me more than people's consistent wisecracks about inebriated pilots. The remarks always come of that semi-nervous giggle, joke-but-not-really-a-joke style: Hey, how about those two pilots they caught in Miami? I mean, I know you guys aren't half-crocked up there, but ... well, are you?

As one of those guys, I'm known for a liberal sense of humor and a demonstrated tolerance -- hell, even an open invitation -- for the most gruesome of myths, rumors and misconceptions, but this one has proven tough to dispel. Over the years, a handful of news reports of booze-breathed crewmembers nabbed at the metal detectors has kept alive a certain lingering stereotype of the airline pilot: a renegade divorcee, crows feet flanking the eyes and a whiskey-tempered Southern drawl, a flask tucked into his flight case.

Most infamous of all, in March 1990, an entire Northwest Airlines flight crew -- three airmen in total -- were arrested in Minneapolis after bringing in their 727 from Fargo, N.D., with 58 passengers on board. All three, who had spent the previous evening at Fargo's Speak Easy lounge downing as many as 19 rum and Cokes, were found to have blood alcohol levels beyond the legal limit.

Mind you, that legal limit -- set at .04 by the Federal Aviation Administration -- is substantially more restrictive for flying airplanes than for driving a car, and most carriers have in-house rules above and beyond FAA mandate. In most cases, crewmembers are banned from imbibing any alcoholic beverage within 12 hours of reporting for work. The cost of violating these rules is, in most cases, personal disgrace, the instantaneous termination of one's airline career and even jail time. To keep workers away from these harsh punitive measures -- and out of the limelight -- most larger carriers offer extensive counseling and support programs for those who might need them.

I could mention that a pilot who blows a .04 on a breathalyzer is hardly drunk, and perhaps no more incapacitated than most people with the mildest of hangovers. I'll lay that out there to demonstrate the toughness of the rules, though I'll ask you not to confuse it with justification. More to the point, that the known breaches of said rules can be counted on one hand should provide some insight into their rarity. And if you want something personal and empirical, try this: As an airline pilot for about 10 years, I can confidently attest that I have never once encountered a colleague who I knew to be under the influence of alcohol or, for that matter, any other mind-altering intoxicant.

I've done a few interviews since the release of my book and, to my great discouragement, the alcohol issue is consistently one of the first controversy grenades rolled at me. Here I am ready to wax passionate about the excitement of 21st century air travel, and suddenly I'm hit with: "What about all those drunk pilots we keep hearing about?" You'd think some systemic plague was at hand; pilots stumbling down concourses across America, spilling shot glasses over their throttles.

I'll give you the same sound bite summary that I gave the nice woman from USA Today: Granted, every last person who steps onto an airliner and fastens his or her seatbelt is, if only for a moment, contemplating the possibility of death and catastrophe. To spend that moment wondering if the pilots are impaired by alcohol is, if nothing else, a waste of time.


Among the most inspirational stories out there is that of Northwest Airlines captain Lyle Prouse, one of the trio arrested that morning in Minneapolis in 1990. Prouse, an alcoholic whose parents had died of the disease, became a poster pilot of punishment and redemption. He was given 16 months in federal prison for flying drunk, and then, in a remarkable and improbable sequence of events, was able to return to the cockpit on his 60th birthday and retire as a 747 captain. Once out of jail, Prouse was forced to requalify for every one of his FAA licenses and ratings. Broke, he relied on a friend to lend him stick time in a single-engine trainer. Northwest's then CEO John Dasburg, who himself had grown up in an alcoholic family, took personal interest in Prouse's struggle and lobbied publicly for his return.

You'll see Prouse in TV interviews from time to time, and inevitably you're struck by how forthrightly he takes responsibility, without resorting to the sobby self-flagellation of most public apologies. Always one is left, unexpectedly, to conclude this convicted felon deserved, and got, a second chance. I'd never have believed it myself until watching a network special about Prouse a few years ago.

In 2001 Lyle Prouse was among those granted presidential pardons by Bill Clinton.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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