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Rampant Air Rage Aggravates Misery of Post-Pandemic Travel

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Rampant Air Rage Aggravates Misery of Post-Pandemic Travel

With lounge access easier than ever, more people are drinking alcohol before boarding. (representational)

A warning as the Northern Hemisphere summer travel season kicks off: air rage is rampant in the post-pandemic world.

Recent unruly behaviour includes a man allegedly pinning an American Airlines Group Inc flight attendant to the cockpit door after an argument about vegetarian meals; an Air India Ltd. passenger being restrained after trying to open the aircraft door and attacking crew; and Qantas Airways Ltd. and its low-cost carrier Jetstar temporarily banning four drunk men in Australia for allegedly verbally abusing customers and staff.

Globally, there was one disorderly incident reported for every 568 flights in 2022, up from one per 835 flights in 2021, the International Air Transport Association said in a statement this month, citing data collated from more than 20,000 reports submitted by around 40 airlines. Failure to comply with crew instructions — such as using e-cigarettes and vapes and not fastening seatbelts –increased by more than a third.

Fraying passenger tempers can be put down to a few things. With lounge access easier than ever, more people are drinking alcohol before boarding. There’s also the general annoyance over high ticket prices and heightened anxiety in wake of Covid. Chaotic airports, lost luggage and flight cancellations as carriers struggle with a lack of planes and labour aren’t helping either.

Now, the aviation industry is calling for action. IATA, which represents about 300 airlines accounting for 83% of the world’s air traffic, wants more nations to prosecute offending passengers. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents US cabin crews, says flight attendants should be given mandatory self-defense training and security enhanced at airport screening points, boarding gates and on planes.

The Federal Aviation Administration has started a campaign with social media memes and airport signs explaining what constitutes disruptive behaviour and its potential consequences, said Tim Colehan, IATA’s assistant director for external affairs. Other countries can look to the zero-tolerance approach in the US, which he said deters misbehavior by taking strong enforcement action.

Fear and Booze

IndiGo Chief Executive Officer Pieter Elbers said since Covid restrictions were lifted there’s been a change in the flying experience and some people are struggling to adjust. “Planes were pretty empty and suddenly they were full again, and people lost a little bit of that feeling of being with so many people together,” sparking some anxiety, he said.

Those fears are playing out in different ways. A man on an Asiana Airlines flight in South Korea late last month opened an exit door as the plane neared the airport in the city of Daegu in the southeast of the country. He later told police he did it because he felt suffocated and wanted to get off the aircraft.

Fliers have forgotten travel etiquette and they’re not as accustomed to being around strangers after spending long periods at home with limited socializing, said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. The mixed messages and abrupt policy changes around Covid have also agitated some people.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, alcohol abuse is a major contributor to air rage. During the pandemic, takeaway alcohol became common at airports and pushing consumption of booze for profit led to passengers drinking up to the boarding gate with no responsible oversight, Nelson said.

“All of those issues certainly add to the recipe for violence,” said Nelson. “It’s never acceptable.”

IATA said while physical abuse incidents remain rare, there was an increase of 61% over 2021, occurring once every 17,200 flights.

Global Problem

The US has seen 783 air rage incidents so far this year, 49% higher than pre-Covid levels, according to the FFA. In the UK, instances in 2022 nearly tripled from 2019 to 1,028, according to the television news channel Sky News.

In Australia, as travellers took to the air again last year, authorities noticed an emerging pattern of disruptive behaviour. Australian Federal Police reported a series of what it called air-rage incidents at major airports stemming from missed flights, delays and problems with baggage. Violence also broke out outside terminals in disputes over taxis or ride-share vehicles.

The number of public disturbances, assaults or incidents of intoxication and offensive behavior at Sydney and Melbourne airports — the country’s two primary aviation hubs — soared to 463 between March and September last year from 279 in the same period a year earlier, according to the AFP.

And the problem is getting worse. According to exclusive AFP data, there were 401 similar incidents in Sydney and Melbourne airports this year through May 14. That dwarfs last year’s monthly rate.

Such episodes of bad behaviour seem to be especially frequent in India, a nation of 1.4 billion people where flying is new to many. IndiGo, the country’s biggest airline, has trained crew to spot the varying levels of disruptive behaviour and take action accordingly.

CEO Elbers said there was one case of a cabin crew member being harassed by a passenger. “So she replied, ‘I’m not your servant,’ and actually that went viral,” he said. “And she got a lot of support for that. And my reaction was please treat our staff the way you want to be treated.”

The carrier only operates with women cabin crew and doesn’t serve alcohol on domestic flights.

One incident gained particular notoriety last November when a man urinated on another passenger during an Air India flight from New York to New Delhi.

In January, Air India CEO Campbell Wilson said in a statement that the airline reviewed its policy around alcohol service on flights and started an education program to improve its crews’ handling of unruly passengers. The airline gave iPads to pilots and senior cabin crew so they can report incidents to the aviation regulator faster.

Nelson wants more people to talk about air rage. She also urged passengers to step up as helpers and be patient with crew and aviation workers on the ground.

“Our cabins are small microcosms of humanity,” she said. “Social and political issues always show up on planes. It’s really just a handful of bad actors who need to be grounded and face consequences for their violent actions.”

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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