The Dallas Morning News
DON'T CROSS YOUR ARMS. Never touch the person. Above all, listen. These are techniques for calming an unruly air passenger. When they don't work, there are plastic handcuffs and a posse of passengers. But flight crews and air-rage experts say more needs to be done.
Chris Honochick stretched out in his seat as the Alaska Airlines jet reached cruising speed. The 37-year-old seafood salesman had been visiting his parents in sunny Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and was heading home to Salem, Ore.
Normally crowded, the flight was only half full this March day, and flight attendants at the back of the plane were chattering about the unusually pleasant trip.
Then Honochick noticed Peter Bradley, who was about to give a terrifying demonstration of one of the airline industry's thorniest problems.
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound man was acting increasingly strange. He looked airsick and made six or eight hurried trips to the lavatories, Honochick recalls. Then he peeled off his shirt and began running up and down the aisle, sitting in different seats. He shed his shoes and socks.
When a flight attendant asked him to return to his assigned seat, Bradley grabbed her and uttered an obscenity. The chief pilot strode down the aisle to investigate. Bradley avoided looking at him, insisting that he wasn't being a problem.
By the time the 3 1/2-hour flight ended, passengers said, Bradley would become more than a mere problem.
He is accused of trying to open the plane's exits, threatening to kill other passengers, bursting into the cockpit and lunging for the controls.
In a scene suited to a big-screen thriller, the co-pilot fended off the strapping intruder with a crash ax as the horrified pilot shielded the controls with his body.
`He would have killed us all'
The struggle ended when six passengers, including Honochick, tackled Bradley and pinned him to the floor.
"He wanted to take that plane down," Honochick says. "You could see it in his eyes. He would have killed us all."
Bradley is awaiting trial after pleading not guilty to two federal charges. The Kansas City-area man has no recollection of the incident, his lawyer says, and was suffering from a combination of factors including a virus that temporarily inflamed his brain.
While the events aboard that Alaska Airlines jet were extreme, violent passenger behavior during flight occurs more often than people think, aviation-safety experts say. It can range from drunken confrontations to unprovoked psychotic episodes. But regardless of cause and form, such outbursts are popularly categorized as "air rage."
Even more troublesome, these authorities say, is the fact that the industry hasn't developed a sure-fire plan for dealing with such belligerence when it erupts.
Each situation is different
Though detailed procedures exist for coping with malfunctioning equipment in flight, handling an agitated, irate, drunk or mentally unstable passenger at 30,000 feet still depends heavily on the instantaneous judgment of the flight crew - and sometimes passengers. And because of the vagaries of human behavior, what works in one circumstance could be disastrous in another.
"Every unruly-passenger event is different," said Robert Kudwa, American Airlines' vice president of flight and its chief pilot. "It's difficult to define what to do."
Air rage often involves medical and psychological problems beyond the training of most flight attendants and pilots. Alcohol is also a factor in many episodes, and the stress of delays and crowded planes doesn't help.
No one knows for sure how many incidents take place each year. Although Federal Aviation Administration statistics show a drop in cases in the United States, some experts say the vast majority of episodes go unreported, in part because definitions differ from carrier to carrier.
"We need standards of what constitutes improper behavior," said Peter Reiss, a commercial pilot for 34 years and security committee chairman for the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Association.
While no crash has been blamed on an irate passenger, "I have been expecting an accident to occur," Reiss says. "It's the greatest threat facing our industry as far as I am concerned."
A roll call of rampage
A big concern is that problems in the cabin can distract pilots from their duties - and often the cockpit is the unruly passenger's destination.
Consider some events this year in addition to the Alaska Airlines flare-up:
In March, a Phoenix-bound America West plane was diverted to Albuquerque after a woman verbally abused a flight attendant, pounded on the cockpit door and shoved and slapped the co-pilot. As the plane descended, she refused to sit down and placed a call from her cellular telephone.
A man aboard a Delta Air Lines flight to Cincinnati from Jacksonville, Fla., in April tried to get into the cockpit and pushed away a flight attendant who tried to stop him. Two passengers helped subdue him. The plane landed in Knoxville, Tenn.
A Continental Airlines customer threw a can of beer at a flight attendant and then bit a co-pilot's arm in July. The Seattle-bound plane was forced to return to Anchorage.
Last month, a 19-year-old Southwest Airlines passenger tried to break into the cockpit about 20 minutes before the plane was scheduled to land in Salt Lake City. It took six passengers to restrain the man, who died of a heart attack after security guards took him off.
And just three weeks ago, a man struck a flight attendant and some passengers on an Air France flight from Paris to San Francisco after being refused alcoholic drinks.
The next day in Cleveland, a Continental Airlines passenger was accused of grabbing and trying to push an attendant who wanted him to return to his seat.
How air crews are trained
For the most part, carriers are left on their own regarding how to handle such situations.
In 1996, the FAA issued an advisory on the topic, but it recommends only that airlines provide training for attendants and that when an outburst occurs, they notify pilots and enlist colleagues or passengers to help as necessary.
"Checklists for some things are great," says Richard Bloom, an associate professor of political and clinical psychology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and an air-rage consultant to some airlines. But machines are much more predictable than people, he notes. "With a checklist, it is too easy to go by the book and not really focus on the individual."
Instead, carriers try to teach crews how to prevent a volatile situation from escalating into violence.
"Most of our training deals with defusing," says David Curry, a Southwest Airlines training manager. "Don't let it go to the next step. We trust the judgment of our flight attendants."
At Southwest, which operates 2,600 flights a day, safety instructors teach flight attendants to find out what's bothering an agitated passenger. Tactics include kneeling down face-to-face with the person and establishing eye contact. Never cross one's arms or touch the passenger. And above all, listen to whatever the person has to say.
Some carriers, including Southwest, conduct classes in which attendants take turns playing the roles of troublemaker and peacemaker. They also use videotapes of simulated incidents, in which the action stops at critical points and students must make decisions.
Delta hired a Tijeras, N.M., company called the Verbal Judo Institute, started by former police officers, to develop ways for crews to identify and communicate with problem passengers early on. Northwest Airlines attendants undergo "emotional intelligence training" to detect telltale tones of voice and body language.
Warning cards and handcuffs
Airlines don't teach physical-restraint techniques or martial arts, though some attendants say that might be useful.
When anger-management techniques don't calm an unruly passenger, crews on some carriers will hand out written cards that warn of possible arrest, hefty fines and prison time.
If the situation becomes dangerous, however, a decision about attempting physical restraint must be made - so some airlines equip their planes with plastic handcuffs.
But even those tools aren't universally used. Southwest doesn't equip its planes with handcuffs, for example, and flight attendants for United Airlines don't hand out warning cards. And each pilot makes an individual decision on whether to assist attendants with a hostile passenger.
Airlines and labor unions have pushed federal authorities to arrest and prosecute offenders and have won tougher penalties. Under a law that went into effect in April, anyone guilty of interfering with a crew member faces a maximum fine of $25,000, up from $1,100.
`Not trained to do combat'
Dealing with unruly passengers "is handled well by the carriers now," says David Fuscus, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group.
But air-rage experts and some of those on the front lines say more should be done.
"We are not trained to do combat in the air," says Stephen Luckey, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association's security committee and a recently retired 33-year Northwest Airlines veteran.
Luckey advocates better security at the front of planes, including stronger cockpit doors and locks.
He also favors "rings of defense," in which all airline and airport employees - including those in restaurants and at airport curbs - are required to report anyone they think might pose a problem.
Under this plan, flight attendants would also take note of large male passengers as they board and recruit them to come forward and guard the cockpit door at the first sign of trouble in the cabin.
"The key to this whole thing is prevention and education," Luckey says. "The degree of violence is getting worse. People have not been breaking into cockpits until recently."
Flight attendants particularly alarmed
This year, several flight-attendant unions sponsored a "day of action" at 16 airports around the world in which they handed out leaflets alerting passengers that air rage is a serious problem and warning that interfering with crews is a federal offense.
Attendants say they'd like a lot more help from their employers than they get now, including more intense training.
"They don't teach flight attendants restraint (methods). They don't suggest how a 130-pound woman can get a 250-pound man back into his seat and into handcuffs," says Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the 47,000-member Association of Flight Attendants, the biggest union for such employees.
"Every flight attendant has a story," he says. "It's a safety risk for everyone on board the plane."
Attendants say the FAA advisory that recommends training should be a federal law, and they want airport ads and notices to passengers warning that unruly behavior is illegal.
Such public-service campaigns already exist in Canada and the United Kingdom.
Airlines should impose tougher controls on when and how much alcohol is served in flight, attendants say. Crews can already deny drinks to tipsy travelers, but that action itself can trigger hostilities.
`Help me get him off me!'
Still, as the Alaska Airlines incident shows, sometimes every effort to calm a distraught passenger fails. The following account is drawn from interviews with Honochick and a detailed written Federal Bureau of Investigation report:
After the plane's chief pilot spoke to Bradley, peace prevailed for a while on Flight 259.
But an hour before the plane was scheduled to land in San Francisco, the 39-year-old remodeling contractor again got up and moved to the front of the plane. He tried to open the locked cockpit door and the exit doors. A flight attendant tried to get him to sit down. He berated her with an obscenity.
Then Bradley turned to the passengers: "I am going to (expletive) kill you. I'm going to kill you all."
He began jiggling the cockpit door handle and talking about someone nobody could identify.
"He's trying to get me. I know he's on the plane. I'm not going to let you. I'm going to get him first," Bradley said. A flight attendant repeatedly told him that he did not want to open the cockpit door. He shoved her.
Trying to control her nervousness, she went to the coach cabin and told Honochick, who earlier volunteered his help, that she needed him.
Honochick was halfway up the aisle of the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 when Bradley, using his weight, burst the cockpit door open and grabbed for the flight controls.
"Help me get him off me!" the pilot yelled. His co-pilot grabbed an ax that was part of an emergency crash kit and began struggling with Bradley.
"I'm going to kill you," Bradley said.
Meanwhile, flight attendants had rounded up five other male passengers to help Honochick. The six men jumped on Bradley, and one of them stabbed him with a pen. Honochick wound up on the bottom and for a moment feared he was going to be bitten by Bradley.
But after briefly struggling, Bradley, who had not eaten or drunk anything during the flight, suddenly became unconscious.
Indicted on federal charges
Handcuffed and silent, he remained on the floor until the plane landed in San Francisco.
Both Bradley and the co-pilot, who needed stitches for a cut on his hand, were taken to a hospital.
Bradley was arrested and later indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of interfering with a crew member and committing a violent act likely to endanger a plane. He is currently free on $100,000 bond but is barred from commercial flights. A trial date hasn't been set.
Bradley was suffering from viral encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, that combined with other factors to create a state of delusion, says Jerrold Ladar, his lawyer.
While he doesn't dispute the FBI's account of the incident, he says: "Peter's case is more analogous to someone on a plane having a stroke" than an intentional rampage. Bradley doesn't have any history of mental illness or criminal conduct.
That reasoning gives no comfort to Honochick. He says he wakes up at night thinking about his close call.
"They need to have a lot better security in the cockpits," he says. "You are up in the air. You have no other place to go."
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