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Flyer Ire: Different Irks for Different Jerks
Illustration for TIME by Bill Dare

There are only two emotions on an airplane, Orson Welles once said: boredom and terror. Nowadays, you can add anger to that list. Passengers are up in arms over a perceived decline in airline service, with flight delays, uncomfortable seating and lost luggage topping the litany of air-travel woes. Airlines gripe back that passengers are the main cause of holdups and hassles, as flyers try to wangle an upgrade to avoid the seat they purchased in economy class, stuff an oversized bag in the overhead bin or blow cigarette smoke in the face of no-smoking rules. Both sides agree on one thing: all they want from each other is a little respect.

Blame flyer ire on glossy airline ads. Creative types have so successfully romanticized the inflight experience that passengers step onboard expecting comfy seats, five-star cuisine and geisha-like attention to their needs--no matter what class they're flying in. "People's expectations are definitely higher these days," says Richard Stirland, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines. "If they're flying in economy, they seem to expect business- or first-class service." Laments Mona Lawson, a Hong Kong-based flight attendant for United Airlines with more than 25 years of experience: "I remember when flying was a big occasion. Families used to dress up, and everyone would be on his best behavior. Now, the kids are screaming, and their parents are even worse. They try to get away with whatever they can, sneaking into business class or into the pantry. I'm constantly amazed."

A few passengers, fueled by too much alcohol or not enough oxygen and nicotine, lash out physically, attacking cabin crew and even seatmates. Airlines are striking back: Singapore Airlines staff can restrain unruly flyers with plastic handcuffs, Air Canada has started docking frequent flyer points for verbal abuse, and Cathay Pacific imposed a lifetime ban on members of British rock band Oasis for their boorish behavior last year on a flight from Hong Kong to Australia. Governments are also cracking down. Last month a Singapore court imposed a one-year jail sentence on a Malaysian passenger who started a fire during a Singapore Airlines flight. Australian and British aviation officials are considering pre-boarding breathalyzer tests to bar drunken barbarians at the gate.

Even so, extreme cases of air rage seem to be the exception. "For the most part, passengers are polite and aware we're working hard to keep things running smoothly," Lawson says. "Flying in and out of Asia all the time, you get to know your regular customers. They're always glad to see a friendly face, and on those long haul flights, so am I!"

R E L A T E D   L I N K S
Air Travelers Bill of Rights
Rules of the Air


April 19, 1999

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Main Feature
Passengers are up in arms over a perceived decline in airline service

Has an airline ever trampled on your rights?

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