Booze on planes fueling some bad behavior

Posted9/4/2011 6:00 AM

Did you hear about the teenager who gave new meaning to the term jet stream? Sandy Vietz, an 18-year-old member of the U.S. National Ski Team squad, was flying from Portland, Ore., to New York City on a Jet Blue flight and apparently had too much to drink. Instead of going to the lavatory, he missed it by several rows and watered down a sleeping 11-year-old girl. When the story came out, the team ousted him from the squad. That's probably the fastest he ever went "down hill."

About the same time Vietz had his incident, the French actor, Gerard Depardieu, while taxiing on a Cityjet, a subsidiary of Air France, decided he needed to use the lavatory. Flight attendants told him to wait until after takeoff. He created his own jet stream, right in the aisle of first class. Like Vietz, he was full of spirit -- the bottled kind not available to minors.

These aren't the first passengers with a bad sense of direction when it comes to finding the lavatories. Several years ago, an investment banker traveling from Buenos Aires to New York left his deposit on the first-class serving cart. His attorneys claimed he was suffering from intestinal problems. I'm sure anyone seated within five rows of him had problems much worse than his.

And then there was a passenger on one of my flights who mistook the coat closet for the water closet. He gave my flying partner's jacket a good soaking.

All of these passengers blamed their actions on alcohol. While these deeds are totally disgusting, it's the mean drunks that frighten us the most. Seriously inebriated passengers have started food fights, broken bottles over flight attendants heads and stormed cockpits. Sometimes pilots have had to leave the controls to help squelch a revolt, and this is dangerous for everyone.

Part of the problem can be blamed on airport safety. To clear security and ensure arrival at their gates in time, some passengers find they have time to kill, so they head for the airport bars. Then they board their planes and have a few more drinks in lieu of food, since in most cases there isn't any. And because the effect of alcohol doubles at 35,000 feet, it's no wonder passengers become abusive and exhibit bizarre behavior. The airlines could stop this problem by eliminating alcohol on their flights. But not everybody agrees.

"The airlines have already eliminated most of the service they used to provide," said one frequent traveler. "About the only thing left is relaxing with a glass of wine. I would hate to see that taken away."

And because the airlines make a lot of money off the sale of liquor, they're not in a hurry to eliminate it either.

While the majority of passengers drink responsibly, the ones that don't are a serious threat to a flight. While eliminating alcohol altogether on flights is probably unrealistic, it does need to be monitored. And flight attendants can't be expected to do it.

During training, we're told to refuse to serve alcohol to someone who appears intoxicated. But that alone is enough to ignite a fist fight in someone who's already lit. The airlines need to find a way to reduce the amount of alcohol served or perhaps arm the air marshals with breathalyzers. At least they've got the guns to back it up.

Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via email at