By Travel writer contributor
updated 7/15/2008 9:48:16 AM ET 2008-07-15T13:48:16

Planning on flying this summer?

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If so, I’d like to suggest you take your seat, take a deep breath and take a moment to think about Aiden Mackle.

Mr. Mackle, you may remember, was the gentleman from Portadown, Northern Ireland, who got himself thrown off an airplane — and into the hoosegow in Bangor, Maine — last March after pitching a midair fit. Among his transgressions: drinking, smoking in the lavatory, assaulting flight attendants and claiming to be an associate of Osama bin Laden.

Not exactly a role model for in-flight behavior, if you get my drift.

And yet, it seems Mr. Mackle was merely a harbinger of things to come. Since his misadventure in Maine, we’ve had:

  • Christina Szele of Queens, N.Y., who reportedly lit a cigarette on a flight between New York and San Francisco, punched a flight attendant and broke through the flex cuffs the crew used to restrain her. (Ms. Szele was indicted by a Denver grand jury last week.)
  • Zoltan Lensky of Slovakia, who apparently got drunk on a flight between Atlanta and Vienna, slapped a flight attendant’s hand and tried to set an onboard curtain on fire.
  • Jacob Kline of New Mexico, who allegedly overindulged on a flight between Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., pinched a flight attendant’s bottom and threw ice at his fellow passengers.

And that was during just one week in June. Lord knows what the rest of the summer’s going to be like.

Enforcement actions and unreported incidents
You have to wonder — are such incidents highly publicized aberrations or indicative of a dangerous rise in air rage? Have the cutbacks in airline staffing and onboard amenities made an already stressful situation even more so? And, going forward, how are people who have just shelled out more money to check their bags going to respond when they find out they now have to pay for pretzels and pop?

Unfortunately, hard data is impossible to come by. According to the FAA, the number of incidents involving “unruly passengers” is dropping — from a high of 304 incidents in 2004 to 141 last year. And through June 11 of this year, there were just 40 so-called enforcement actions, a pace that suggests a continued decline.

FAA statistics, however, don’t tell the whole story. “Reporting is at the discretion of the crew,” says agency spokesman Les Dorr. “If they don’t report it, we don’t have a record of it.” Likewise, if an incident is handled by another agency — TSA, FBI or local law enforcement — it doesn’t end up in the FAA database.

“The ones you read about tend to be the big ones,” says Andrew Thomas, a professor at the University of Akron and creator of “There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, that stay under the radar.”

To support that view, Thomas points to a report produced by England’s Department of Transportation that shows disruptive behavior on airplanes in the UK is soaring. Between April 2006 and March 2007 (the most recent figures available), there were 2,219 reported incidents, a 63 percent jump over the previous 12 months. “It’s a global problem,” says Thomas, and there’s no reason to think the U.S. is any different.

Summer trouble brewing?
By the same token, onboard incidents don’t happen in a vacuum. According to Thomas, 40–50 percent of air rage incidents involve alcohol, yet getting rid of onboard booze remains a non-starter: “On a long flight, those $6 margaritas can cover a lot of flight-crew expenses.”

It’s also an important source of revenue for airports. With travelers getting to the airport earlier than ever, there are more opportunities to get stressed out — delayed flights, security hassles, hordes of other stressed-out travelers dealing with delayed flights and security hassles — and more reasons than ever to run screaming for a drink or two or 12.

Now factor in the new fees for checked bags, which promise to make the onboard “ambience” even more intense. “There’s already been a huge increase in carry-on luggage,” says Christopher Clarke, a flight attendant/union representative who flies for United. “The overhead space is already packed and people get upset when customer service has to come and check their bag.”

“People are reaching the boiling point,” suggests Gregg Rottler, a Tampa-based state health officer who launched last year as an online forum for travelers who want to vent about their air-travel horror stories. “I get a couple submittals a week, depending on what’s in the news,” Rottler says. “I think we’re going to see plenty more stories this summer.”

Seeing them is one thing, becoming one is another. It turns out that two days after Jacob Kline was taken into custody, Aiden Mackle was sentenced to 116 days in jail (mostly time served), fined $20,000 and told he would be deported.

Something to consider the next time you get pissed off on a plane.

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