Why flying can make you flip

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A dangerous increase in disruptive, often drunken, behaviour by airline passengers has prompted calls on both sides of the Atlantic for tough new measures to improve in-flight safety.

At a conference last week in Washington, cockpit and cabin crews from America and Europe said that as the volume of flights worldwide grew, they were seeing more and more incidents of passengers assaulting pilots and flight attendants, as well as each other. One man sought to open a door in flight with the intention of killing himself; in another, more celebrated, case a man defecated on a food trolley.

Jerrold Post, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, told the conference that the stress generated by crowded airports and planes, in combination with alcohol and, sometimes, nicotine deprivation, added up to a dangerous brew.

Prof Post identified three traits among disruptive passengers:

The superior "world owes me a living" types, like the Saudi princess who responded to an instruction to buckle her seat belt by scratching a steward in the face and declaring: "I have never been told by anyone to do anything."

The powerful man with the chip on his shoulder, often represented by a senior executive who resents the authority of a crew member to tell him he must switch off his lap-top computer.

People prone to fear of flying, sometimes expressed in terms of an inability to reconcile themselves to the fact that while airborne their lives are at the mercy of persons unknown.

In many cases alcohol, and then the denial of more alcohol by concerned aircraft staff, is usually the trigger that sends passengers over the edge.

"The rise in such episodes would seem to be in part a consequence of deregulation and the decline in service and increase in crowding that has accompanied it," Prof Post said. "More passengers are being crammed into compressed spaces and the number of flight attendants is being reduced. More than ever before getting on a plane is like getting on to a crowded bus. The whole issue of reduced personal space leads to frustration."

The professor suggested that the aviation industry should collect unified data on unruly passengers.

Leo Flammer, a representative at the conference from Austrian Airlines, proposed that airlines might impose a system of football-style penalty points. Airlines should keep records of passengers and impose an escalating scale of punishments, from deducting frequent flyer miles to suspending, or altogether banning, persistent offenders from future flights.

Mr Flammer, a pilot and security expert, also suggested that aircraft should have their own specially trained security officers and on-board "cooling down" areas, or sin-bins.

In Britain airlines have been focusing more on the problem lately, according to Gordon White, the national secretary of Cabin Crew 89, an independent union for in-flight airline staff. "The firmest airline is Britannia," he said. "If people get outrageous on a flight they'll refuse to take them back home. So if you're flying Manchester-Malaga you'll have to find your own way back."

British Airways, he said, now train their crews in basic police-type techniques for subduing violent passengers and they are encouraging individual crew members to take legal action against those who assault them.

Iain Burns, a British Airways spokesman, confirmed that at the end of last year the company instituted a new plan to provide cabin crew with legal help in prosecutions and to allow them paid time off to testify in court. Such a policy is necessary, he explained, because by law airlines cannot press charges against passengers. Inside the aircraft, however, the crew member is king. Each British Airways flight is equipped with handcuffs to be used, Mr Burns said, "in extremis".