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There are fewer drunken, violent idiots on planes than ever—thanks to Xanax and social media

AP Images/Matt Strasen
Keep calm or carry on?
By Leslie Josephs
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Last year, after being denied “further” alcoholic beverages, a man grabbed a flight attendant and kissed her neck on a US Airways flight. Flight attendants then had to get an ice hammer, a pot of hot coffee, and plastic handcuffs to take on the passenger, who was yelling, “Let’s Go!”

“As everyone who flies on airliners knows, a drunk, abusive passenger acting out against other passengers and the flight crew is not merely an inconvenience, but a serious threat to the safety of everyone on the flight,” said US attorney John Walsh. The passenger was sentenced to four months in jail earlier this year.

That man is not the only unruly passenger in the sky. The frequency of news reports sometimes make it seem like they’re everywhere. In June, a Virgin America flight from Los Angeles to Newark diverted to Denver after witnesses reported a man spreading wired devices out in the aisle. A reportedly intoxicated passenger who was making  “finger guns“ at flight attendants caused American Airlines to divert a flight from San Jose last October.

But in the US, the number of these difficult fellow passengers is actually in rapid descent.

Airlines reported just 99 incidents of unruly passengers last year, the fewest since 1995, which is as far back as the Federal Aviation Administration data goes. The number of reports has declined even as the number of airplane passengers hit new records. There were just nine reports this year through mid-April, though summer traveling season is just picking up and we’re not even close to the end-of-year holiday season.

You can chalk the decline up to Xanax and iPad use on board, but the threat of 140 characters from witnesses may be the more effective cure. Incidents can be easily filmed on smartphones and shared on social media. That could be part of the reason you may have noticed an improvement in customer service.

Some industry experts say flight attendants are better trained to de-escalate confrontations with passengers or better yet, avoid them altogether. Some Chinese airlines want to blacklist rowdy passengers, for example.

The incidents themselves are difficult to track and data may not tell the complete picture because they are based on what airlines report. The International Air Travel Association collected 38,230 reports of unruly passengers between 2007 and 2014, a rate of one report for every 1,530 flights—one for every 1,289 in 2014 alone.

Those figures “significantly underestimate the true extent of the problem” because they don’t include all the world’s airlines, the trade group said.

So don’t be that guy. You’ll regret it.

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