6 April 2002
REM guitarist cleared of 'air rage' rampage
By Hugh Davies and Paul Marston
British Airways faces civil damages claims from cabin staff after Peter Buck, the guitarist with the rock band REM, was cleared yesterday of "air rage" charges even though he did not deny ransacking the first-class cabin of a jumbo jet.
Buck, 45, insisted that the combined effects of a pre-take-off sleeping pill and glasses of red wine left him with no recollection of hours of "loutish behaviour" on a flight from Seattle to Heathrow.
He had been accused of trying to throttle a senior purser with his tie and grabbing a stewardess so fiercely that her wrist was bruised in two places.
Another hostess said she was "scared to death" when the musician overturned a breakfast trolley. The verdicts provoked outrage from airline unions, which also criticised BA for saying it would welcome the musician back as a passenger.
Two cabin crew allegedly attacked during the flight last April are to pursue civil actions for compensation. Christopher Darke, of the pilots' union, Balpa, said the verdict could be seen to send out all the wrong signals.
"It may be good news for Peter Buck. It's very bad news for airlines, their employees and passengers." Amicus, the two cabin crew's union, said the sort of treatment they had received would not be tolerated on the ground and should not be tolerated in the air.
It is examining the possibility of legal action against either BA, for exposing the staff to risk, or the ground crew at Seattle for allowing the musician on the aircraft.
Action against Buck is said to be unlikely, because of its smaller chance of success and the likelihood of a protracted case with greater costs. Officials said BA should have been "more sympathetic" to staff's feelings before announcing that it would accept Buck back.
"That was not a very tactful thing to say - and many staff will be unhappy about it," a spokesman added. Buck, a 6ft 2in Californian, denied the assaults, and other charges of being drunk on an aircraft and damaging BA property.
A jury at Isleworth Crown Court, near Heathrow, where others convicted of air rage offences have been given prison sentences of up to four years, accepted his explanation that he was not truly responsible for his actions.
Michael Stipe, lead singer, and REM's bassist Mike Mills clutched hands with Buck's wife, Stephanie, in the public gallery as the verdict was announced. Stipe became emotional, brushing tears from his eyes.
Yesterday was the 22nd anniversary of the band's first concert. Buck later told reporters to "stay cool". He spoke of his relief at being cleared, and said he would be returning to the United States on a BA flight.
During the trial, he had sat impassively as evidence was presented by the crew of how he ordered 15 glasses of red wine in the first three hours of the 10-hour flight.
After repeatedly spilling his drinks, and staggering to the lavatory, he went to the galley and helped himself to wine after the purser ignored his demands for more.
When the captain, Tom Payne, handed him a "yellow card" written warning, Buck tore it to pieces and dropped them on the floor, saying: "You are just a captain and I am REM."
Buck's explanation for his conduct surprised police as he only mentioned it after being charged. Officers had asked him if he was taking any medication, and he replied no.
However, Buck said he had delayed explaining about the pill for fear he would also be accused of a drug offence. He said he had never suffered adverse reactions, even when taking the medication with alcohol.
BA said it accepted the verdict and that it would be "churlish" to take any action inconsistent with it by barring the guitarist from flights.