Business Travel: Measuring the turbulence

DESIGN IN BRITAIN: How bad a problem is air rage? New data means a clearer picture will soon emerge.
Air rage - passengers behaving badly - has become a hot topic in the aviation world. The most celebrated incident was earlier this year when an Airtours holiday flight to Jamaica was diverted to Norfolk, Virginia, and a dozen passengers were offloaded. But despite the increased publicity that some of the more violent incidents have attracted over the past few months, the problem is not new. Disruptive incidents, as they are officially known, can cover anything that jeopardises the safe operation of an aircraft and its occupants. These have existed since flying began, but the scale of the problem, and the extent to which it might be increasing, is difficult to gauge.

This year, a new offence was created in this country of "acting in a disruptive manner". This covers everything from using abusive or threatening language, to behaving in an abusive or threatening manner to a member of the crew, and can attract a fine of pounds 2,000 or a two-year jail sentence for anyone found guilty of an offence. Before 1 September, when this new legislation came into effect, the only punishable actions were those that endangered a plane's safety, such as smoking in the toilets, being drunk, or using a mobile phone on board. As a result of this new law, the number of cases officially classified as air rage will increase substantially.

Until April this year, the Civil Aviation Authority only recorded air rage on UK planes that resulted in arrest or restraint. Figures from the last six years are fairly static, at just under a hundred a year. The American Federal Aviation Authority, however, has seen its annual figures increase: from 125 in 1995, to 173 incidents already being reported by the end of August. Whether this is because the problem is increasing, or because of the higher profile that air rage is now attracting in North America, is not clear.

Although, overall, more incidents occur in economy, anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest that, proportionately, they are just as likely, if not more so, to happen in business or first. Up to now it has been difficult to be scientific about the statistics. That is soon set to change, and a much clearer picture of the scale of the problem should start to emerge. Since April, a new scheme has been implemented, which requires cabin crew to fill in a full-page report on every incident, however minor, on British planes. The CAA is about to start looking at the figures for the first six months, and is planning to publish them early next year. Analysis should show how these incidents break down in terms of class of ticket, frequency on charters in comparison with scheduled flights, and when during the flight they are most likely to occur.

This in turn should help pinpoint the possible causes of the problem. It will be necessary first to distinguish between passengers who cause offence, and those with a genuine complaint at the level of service that they are receiving. Many people - including some of their own staff - believe that often the airlines have only themselves to blame: if they provided a more efficient service, faster check-in, better provision for overhead luggage and so on, then passengers would have less cause to be angry. But poor service alone is not a reason for a passenger to become disruptive. Professor Helen Muir, of the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield University has written a paper on the factors that contribute to disruptive behaviour. She identifies alcohol, stress, fear of flying, and concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the cabin environment as some of the reasons why passengers behave in an unruly fashion.

In introducing this year's new legislation, the government has committed itself to taking firm action to deal with air rage. Further measures are likely to be introduced after the CAA's statistics are published. The International Airline Passengers' Association is keen to see problem passengers identified and denied the right to board a plane, a measure supported by BALPA, the pilots' association. The pilots also call for loss of air miles and other privileges, and would like to see closer co-operation between the different airlines in dealing with the problem.

When incidents do happen, there is good co-ordination at our own airports between the airlines and the police authorities. But the CAA is calling for a less insular approach. Britain, already ahead of the United States in the seriousness with which it treats air rage, is leading a push to bring in more cross-border measures. Since air rage is a global problem, it may be time to acknowledge that the only really effective way to deal with it is by airlines, international governments and police forces working together so that everyone can benefit from the lessons that are being learned.