6 April 2002

Attacks on cabin staff have risen sixfold in a decade

An investigation by Nasa has revealed that one in 10 pilots, distracted by requests to deal with troublesome passengers, has made dangerous errors that include using incorrect runways and flying at the wrong height or speed.

Although the REM guitarist Peter Buck was cleared yesterday of allegations that he went on a
drunken rampage during a flight from Seattle to London last April, the captain of the British
Airways flight left the controls at least three times during the 10-hour journey at the request of his crew.

The case has been watched closely by organisations such as the British Airline Pilots
, which has been demanding tougher measures to counter the growing problem of unruly passengers.

Incidents of air rage have risen almost sixfold since 1994, when 1,132 were reported worldwide. It is estimated the number will rise to 6,500 this year. One in five cabin crew say they have been attacked by passengers, while 80 per cent report verbal abuse.

The events of 11 September are unlikely to improve matters, with experts forecasting that
heightened anxiety on the part of passengers and airline staff will exacerbate the problem.

The increase in "air rage" incidents has been met by a steady growth in penalties and preventive measures. Airlines have introduced restraining devices, the Government has raised the idea of increasing the maximum jail sentence to five years and courts have been imposing tougher penalties. Last month, Jonathan Bennett, 29, was jailed for 15 months after admitting endangering the safety of an aircraft, being drunk on an aircraft, affray and common assault.

The airline pilots' association said the penalties were still too lenient. "We don't think the courts take it seriously enough," a spokesman for the association said. "There are 300 to 400 lives at risk, an aircraft at risk and whatever it could crash on at risk."