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.
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.
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.
"I had about 12 inches of space," he says. "Luckily, I'm a peaceful guy, because by the time I got back, I was ready to pick a fight with anyone in sight."
As a result of airline cost-cutting, many airline workers also have taken on more duties while enduring pay cuts. Their stress and frustration could be fostering more aggression among customers.
Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the national Association of Flight Attendants, says it's "a very troublesome time" for flight attendants. Airline bankruptcy reorganizations became "the industry norm" after 9/11, so flight attendants have had to cope with pay, benefits and workrule concessions, she says. They're working more hours, a recipe for fatigue.
That's true of all categories of airline workers.
Because of new security requirements that passengers arrive earlier at airports, travelers with a lot of time to kill may be consuming more alcohol at airport bars or drinking too much in-flight. Smokers may also be agitated because they're not allowed to smoke in-flight or inside many airports.
Passengers may also be stressed before getting to the airport, says Robert Bor, editor of Passenger Behaviour and Aviation Mental Health, two academic books published in England. It can be stressful buying tickets and getting to the airport.
Frequent-flier Yeddy Kaiser, a software consultant in North Branch, Mich., says she's seeing many more rude passengers than rude employees.
When bags are lost or overweight, "I've heard people scream, cry, swear and threaten," she says. "Do they think the (airline worker) deliberately made the suitcase miss the connection? Is it the ticket agent's fault the suitcase is overweight?"
Caldwell, of the flight attendants union, says passengers and employees must remember that courtesy and manners are important in both directions. "We're in this together," she says, "flying in the same aircraft cabin at 30,000 feet."