Air Security While in the Air?

Flight attendants feel wrath of fliers

Elizabeth Oglesby, a passenger from Atlanta aboard the flight, said the woman "appeared to be out of her mind. Upset. Belligerent." She said the woman hit the pilot in the chest after he threatened to handcuff her if she didn't calm down.

*According to an arrest affidavit, Eduardo Turnbull-Bolado, a Mexican citizen, requested immigration forms from a flight attendant before takeoff on a Continental Express flight between Monterrey, Mexico, and Houston. When he didn't get them after a second request, he allegedly backed a flight attendant into an emergency exit door, grabbed the attendant by the shoulder and began pushing.

The flight diverted to Corpus Christi, Texas, where police arrested Turnbull-Bolado, 58. On Thursday, a U.S. District Court jury found him guilty of assaulting and intimidating a flight attendant. He was sentenced to the time already served in jail and fined $5,000.

*Frederick Murphy, 59, of Edison, N.J., allegedly grabbed a flight attendant and kicked walls and tray tables when the crew refused to serve him more wine on a March Continental Airlines flight from Newark to Los Angeles, according to a criminal complaint filed in the incident. The plane diverted to Denver.

Murphy was indicted by a federal grand jury on a charge of interference with a flight crew, which carries a maximum 20-year sentence and $250,000 fine. He has pleaded not guilty, and no trial date has been set, says Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Colorado.

*Erin Lambert, 28, of the San Francisco area, cursed and spat on flight attendants and fellow passengers, the FBI wrote in a court affidavit following her arrest in January after a United Airlines Boston-San Francisco flight.

She fought with flight attendants, made comments about a hijacking and tried to open a cabin door. Lambert pleaded guilty to assault. Her conviction might be dismissed if she stays out of trouble until returning to court next April.

*Danny Reed, 32, of Lerona, W.Va., was arrested in January in Great Falls, Mont., after groping a flight attendant, threatening a fellow passenger and attempting to open the cockpit door on a United Express flight from Denver. Prosecutors say Reed was drunk.

He pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to one-year probation and a $250 fine.

"The federal justice system is seeing more and more of these types of cases," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad in Montana.

Anecdotal evidence

The Air Transport Association, the major trade group that represents U.S airlines, says it hasn't noticed a change in passenger behavior. It says it has no evidence that passenger misconduct is worsening.

But Milwaukee-based Midwest Airlines says it has noticed a trend.

"Our customer service providers recognize the additional stress and tension of traveling today," says Vice President Mary Blundell. "Travel is not as easy and as pleasant as it used to be."

As a result, Midwest is providing flight attendants, pilots, and ticket and gate agents extra training on how to better communicate with customers, deal with their problems and diffuse their anger when things go wrong.

Frequent-flier Tim Burke, a marketing director in Littleton, Colo., says, "There is no pleasure in travel anymore, and, unfortunately, the first line of offense is the flight attendant."

He says the hassles of security screening, late and delayed flights, no food on flights and less friendly airport and airline staff "creates an explosive environment." Flight attendants "often end up being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Russell Rayman, director of the Aerospace Medical Association, agrees. He and other professionals say conditions are ripe for more confrontations between airline workers and their customers.

Planes are flying fuller as airlines slowly regain profitability, and studies have shown that crowding in a confined space can lead to aggression. Full planes also limit airline agents' ability to rebook passengers after a cancellation or missed flight, creating more opportunities for passenger rage.

Psychologist Raymond Fowler, who just returned home to La Jolla, Calif., from Bulgaria and Jordan, can attest to that. He had to sit sideways in his middle seat because the person next to him was so large.