Flight into rage

AIR RAGE MAY not be exactly new, but there is a lot more of it today than there was a decade ago. Violence on planes has increased by nearly 500 per cent in the last half of the 1990s, with at least three deaths reported in the past couple of years. The incidents, even when not resulting in fatality, are quite bizarre. A Briton smashed a bottle into a stewardess' face. Two sisters assaulted the crew on a journey from San Francisco to Shanghai. A Russian grabbed one passenger by the throat and hurt another with a lighted cigarette. A guitarist was charged with attacking an airline staff. These examples indicate that on-board temper is not restricted to any class or nationality. Even an artist - whom one would presume is gifted with finer sensibilities - can go berserk up above the ground. A survey by the London Guildhall University says that the altitude, the lower air pressure and the noise can lead to hostile behaviour. Added to this is the fact that strangers have to literally rub shoulders in a tightly competitive environment, where one has to fight for armrest space and even meal choices.

Admittedly, all these factors may have existed for a long time. But what have not are certain other developments, which have made passengers much more edgy than they were. In a world fraught with increasing tension, today's far more crowded skies mean longer waits at airports or even on the taxiing paths. One in five travellers has a phobia about flying (the film-maker, Mr. Lars von Trier, is said to shun this mode of transport), and a crash like that of the Concorde in Paris has shaken the theory about invincibility. Together with these is the new knowledge about deep vein thrombosis, a serious condition which occurs from a long period of immobility. This is a trap which economy class users find themselves in. Also, the cabin air carries the risk of infection, and there is this new worry about cosmic radiation. One is bombarded by phenomenally higher doses of it at heights. Cap all these with free flowing liquor, the mood is just right for a nasty confrontation.

If those who man the aisles are not yet fully equipped to deal with anger, the picture in India must be pretty alarming for the International Civil Aviation Organisation to be deliberating on steps to combat uncivil conduct in the air. The Organisation's Council is planning to study a draft legislation on offences in an aircraft. It may be incorporated in the national law. If there had not been major problems in this country till now, it is probably because men and women here have remarkable patience and tolerance. But those who fly the machines must not test these beyond a point, and with still an uncomfortable degree of monopoly in India's civil aviation, the situation both on the ground and above is hardly as happy as one would want it to be. Employees of even some private carriers are rude and haughty, and a mid-air flare-up by one who may already be stressed can be ugly. Although the Organisation is looking into air rage from the point of view of passengers' disruptive tendencies, it is important that every airline trains its staff to be much more professional, courteous and pleasing than what it is now. A flight into a fight is the last thing one wants.