Flight attendant Jackie Hamilton was stunned in March when a passenger allegedly spoke a racial epithet and spit on her shoe when getting off a United Express plane in Albany, N.Y.
In her two years as a flight attendant, Hamilton, an African-American from St. Louis who filed a complaint with police, says she's flown more than 500 flights and never encountered such an offensive outburst from a passenger.
"I was in shock for a minute," Hamilton says. "I remember the hatred in her voice."
Passengers today complain of poor treatment at the hands of airlines trying to cut costs, but Hamilton and other front-line airline workers say abuse is a two-way street.
They say tension between airline employees and passengers is rising, and passengers are ruder and more volatile than in the past. Packed planes, flight delays, security hassles and other factors already have made flying more unpleasant, and many airline employees are working harder for less pay than a few years ago. Angry confrontations between passengers and employees can delay flights, force emergency landings or pose safety risks in flight.
Although government statistics on the subject are fragmentary, the Federal Aviation Administration cited 1,738 "unruly" passengers for illegally interfering with the duties of a flight crew during the seven years ended in 2006, or an average of 248 a year. From 1995 to 1999, there were an average of 198 per year.
Separately, flight attendants, pilots and some other airline workers have reported 1,992 incidents of passenger misconduct since 2001 to NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System. During this period, the largest number of annual incidents, 402, was reported in 2001. The next-highest totals were 399 in 2005 and 374 in 2004.
Not all flight crew and other airline workers are aware of the NASA system, so the actual number of incidents could be higher.
Alin Boswell, union president of the Washington, D.C., local that represents 350 US Airways flight attendants, says times have changed since right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when passengers sympathized with flight attendants and were patient with them.
"That had a very short life span," he says. "We're back to pre-9/11 passenger attitudes. Flight attendants are bearing the brunt of passengers' anger."
In Hamilton's case, police charged passenger Vickie Smith with second-degree harassment. Smith, a white, 56-year-old horse farmer from Addison, Vt., pleaded not guilty. The case will go to trial in a few months, says Albany County Assistant District Attorney Molly Magguilli.
Hamilton says she told Smith that the bag she wanted to carry on the plane was too big and that she had to check it when the flight was boarding in Chicago. The plane was a small jet, and the bag could be checked at the gate. Hamilton says Smith was bothered by the request but complied.
Smith says her bag was not oversize, and she was allowed to take it aboard her previous flight that day from Spokane, Wash., to Chicago on a plane of the same size. Smith says Hamilton screamed at her when she asked a question about checking the bag -- a charge Hamilton denies.
Smith acknowledges that when she was leaving the plane, she did not say "happy things" to Hamilton. Smith says she was under a lot of stress during the flight because her seat was small and a passenger in the next seat crowded her. She also says she's diabetic and was "severely dehydrated" because she didn't get enough to drink on the flight.
Some other recent incidents:
*An unnamed female passenger in April struck the pilot of a Honolulu-bound Delta Air Lines jet after he left the cockpit to quell an on-board disturbance that she started.
The non-stop flight from Cincinnati was over the Pacific Ocean when the incident occurred, and the plane diverted to San Francisco.