Drunken, rowdy air passengers face jail

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The Independent Online
DRUNKEN and abusive airline passengers will face up to two years in jail under a crackdown on air rage.

The Government plans to create a specific criminal offence of interfering with the work of cabin crew in any way. That will mean that passengers who refuse to stop smoking or put on a seat belt would be liable to prosecution.

Many of the fights and disagreements on aircraft stem from smokers on cigarette-free planes trying to light up in the lavatories. Airlines, seeking their own solutions to calm down rowdy and stressed-out passengers, are considering handing out nicotine gum and patches to smokers on long- haul flights.

The moves follow a series of air-rage incidents including one last week involving 12 passengers who live in Lewisham, south London. The holiday- makers, who were bound for Jamaica, were thrown off an Airtours aircraft in America after being involved in an alleged mid-air brawl. They flew home last Thursday insisting they had had "an innocent singsong".

Among the airlines studying solutions to air rage is Virgin Atlantic which has formed a committee to try to design calming measures for disruptive and nervous passengers. One of the proposals is to make nicotine replacement therapy available on demand.

"We are looking at nicotine gum and patches along with many other areas to make passengers' flights more stress free," said a spokeswoman. "We are looking at it as an added service."

Airlines are also working on devising warning schemes for rowdy passengers which are non-confrontational. Under consideration is a graduated system similar to football's red and yellow cards. A first written warning will mean "calm down", a second will involve threats of sanctions and the third, for violent or abusive passengers, could mean "turn the plane round".

Dr John Reid, the transport minister, has decided to toughen up the Air Navigation Order, which makes it an offence to get drunk or act recklessly in a way that endangers an aircraft.

He wants air stewards to be protected specifically from abuse. The new law is expected to be in force by August.

Under current law, passengers on all planes run by a British crew can be prosecuted in Britain. In 1996 Britain took jurisdiction for overseas planes about to land in the UK.

A special committee of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, made up of civil servants and airline representatives, has been set up to tackle air rage. It plans to launch a survey of airlines next month to find out how common disruption, abusive drunkenness and brawling are in the air.

A survey in 1995 of British airlines found that around one incident of serious disruption on aeroplanes occurred per week.

"The minister intends to extend the powers so that interfering with the crew will be considered an offence," said Peter North, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives.