For angry airline passengers keen on paying way more for their flight, here are some pointers.
Assault or grope a flight attendant or the passenger next to you. Arrive drunk, and keep drinking from your carry-on stash. Run amok until the crew has to restrain you with plastic handcuffs.
Extra points granted to those who cause enough ruckus to force an unscheduled landing.
That’s some of what I learned from looking through the Federal Aviation Administration’s recent enforcement actions against unruly passengers. These are people who give “bad trip” a new meaning.
My interest was piqued by the fracas that broke out in August between two passengers on a United Airlines flight. After one passenger used a device to prevent the seat in front of him from reclining, the other passenger threw a cup of water, and the plane diverted to Chicago to kick them both off.
For airlines, unruly passengers are a serious safety hazard. So federal law sets strict guidelines for passenger behavior, foremost among them: Do what the crew members say.
About 213 unruly passenger incidents are reported to the FAA each year, on average, although the number has dropped recently. Still, the International Air Transport Association, a trade association for commercial airlines, rated unruly passengers as one of its top problems last year.
Since 2010 through September 2014, the FAA has issued 258 enforcement actions related to “passenger interference.” I filed six Freedom of Information Act requests with FAA regional offices to get records of the 20 passengers fined at least $10,000.
The top fine, $38,500, went to an Illinois man named Reynel Alcaide. In May 2011, Alcaide was flying from Houston to Chicago when he jumped out of his seat, pinned a flight attendant against an exit door and tried to get out of the aircraft. “I got to get off this plane,” he reportedly yelled. Passengers wrestled him to the floor, and Continental flight 546 landed in St. Louis.
With many of the FAA fines, passengers were also criminally charged. Alcaide spent 10 months in custody, but the FAA has since offered to reduce his fine after Alcaide reported that his behavior stemmed from a mental health crisis.
The passenger with the second-highest fine, $34,125, is Zhiming Qu. On a January 2011 flight from Shanghai to Chicago, the trouble began when Qu ignored the fasten-seat belt sign. He swore and spit, and slugged the flight attendant with the buckle on the end of his seat belt, according to the FAA’s civil penalty order. As the United Airlines jet made an unscheduled stop in Japan, Qu spent the rest of the flight duct-taped to his seat.
Upset that she could not smoke on board, Robin Seymour of Oklahoma City earned a $34,000 fine for attacking crew members and threatening to set a pillow on fire on a United flight in June 2010 from Washington Dulles to Rome, according to the penalty order. In court records, Seymour blamed the outburst on a bad combination of Xanax, alcohol and altitude.
Other big penalties were handed out after disputes over stowage of carry-ons, use of a cellphone and whether a passenger got peanuts. Two of the high-dollar fines were handed to passengers on flights originating at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, including a man who grabbed a crew member by the throat and finished his 2011 flight to New York on the floor of the cabin.
The litany of misbehavior makes you admire flight attendants. They have some tools at their disposal, from a warning note they can hand to passengers “Notice to cease objectionable and/or illegal behavior,” to the plastic “tuff cuffs” that they keep somewhere near the sugar packets and bags of pretzels. But mostly, they have to use their wits.
In extreme situations, passengers typically pitch in. After plastic handcuffs and three selt-belt extenders did not do the job, three passengers lent their belts to help tie up a deranged man on a 2010 Delta flight from Los Angeles to Tampa.
At least one passenger with a whopping fine has tried to turn the tables. Flying from his hometown of Moscow, Russia, to New York in October 2010, Andrey Zherdev was drinking booze from his own supply, according to the FAA penalty order. When a flight attendant took his bottle away, Zherdev took out another one. When a flight attendant tried to take that one, Zherdev screamed and swore. He threw a bottle, then his meal tray, and a piece of luggage. Other passengers were moved away from him. The plane landed in Stockholm, where Zherdev was handed over to the authorities.
The FAA fined Zherdev $13,000. Zherdev responded with three letters denying he had done anything wrong, and saying he had been discriminated against because he was Russian and gay.
In one letter, he demanded that Delta Air Lines reimburse his expenses of $1,500. He tacked on a request to compensate him for “moral damage”: $10 million.
No word on whether anyone has collected.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.