Travel: Where air rage will land you

When a Maine airport offers its services as a dumping ground for unruly airline passengers, it is confirmation that air rage is sadly on the increase
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"EVEN THOUGH the flight was due to leave at nine in the morning, I'd say 95 per cent of the passengers were boozing at the airport when I arrived at 7am." That experience, reported by a (sober) holidaymaker on a charter flight from Manchester to Antigua helps to explain why alcohol- related "air rage" incidents are increasing - and why one small airport is cashing in on unruly British behaviour.

Bangor International Airport, in Maine, came into being in 1968, when the US Air Force sold it to the city for a dollar. Since then, it has made a living by offering "technical" services to British, European and US airlines: refuelling planes, providing a two-mile long runway for weather- related diversions, and, latterly, allowing airlines to offload unruly passengers.

"We're all saddened by the increase in this sort of business," says the airport's marketing boss Jeff Russell. "It's not business we would wish upon ourselves." Nevertheless, Mr Russell managed to stifle his sadness for long enough to organise a meeting with British charter carriers earlier this year. "We told them that we were able to deal efficiently and effectively with air-rage incidents. They want to get in and get out quickly, because time is money."

Within a month of the meeting, three British unruly passengers had been offloaded at Bangor, and delivered into the hands of the FBI and Bangor Police Department. "Most of the calls we get are alcohol-related," says Sergeant Ronald Gastia, supervisor for the department's criminal division.

Early in May, an Airtours flight from Manchester to Florida was diverted after a drunk passenger tried to kick through a window in the cabin. Later that month, another British charter flight made an unscheduled landing at the Maine airport when a passenger hit a crew member. Next, a Delta plane was diverted when another British passenger became unruly. But Mr Russell says UK travellers are no worse than other nationalities: "Air rage is an equal-opportunities sport."

One reason British travellers show up significantly in the statistics is that Bangor is perfectly positioned to bear the brunt of trouble on transatlantic flights. It is the first US international airport that pilots reach on westbound flights, usually around five hours into the journey - enough time for those early drinkers to be getting bored and obstreperous. As soon as a decision to divert is taken, the dollar-clock starts ticking. A long layover can cause hundreds of thousands of pounds in cumulative delays and re-routing passengers who miss connections. Jeff Russell has assembled a team that can be in action within 20 minutes of the first sign of trouble - the time it takes for an aircraft to descend from a cruising altitude of 37,000ft. He says diversions due to air rage now average one a month. The Bangor Police Department is also getting accustomed to dealing with offenders. "In almost all cases, if an aircraft has to divert, that passenger is taken into custody," says Sergeant Ronald Gastia. "Once those people sober up, they become very rational. If it's a less serious offence, they pay the fine and leave."

So far, says Sergeant Gastia, our image remains untarnished by the incidents. "We don't view the British as constant abusers of alcohol, and troublemakers." And Jeff Russell hopes soon that scheduled stops will become more frequent than unplanned diversions: "We're hoping to get some regular charters terminating here. We have a great affinity with the British."