Bangor, Maine April 2001

Uncivil Aviation

How a small city's airport became the capital of air rage

Illustration by Greg Harlin

High over the Atlantic Ocean one afternoon last October, an elderly woman in seat 26B on American Airlines Flight 67 from London to Chicago put her seat back in full recline. This caused grievous vexation to the passenger in 27B, a tall fifty-three-year-old Danish businessman named Jorgen Kragh. According to witnesses later interviewed by the FBI, Kragh launched an escalating campaign of harassment against the offending passenger and her husband. He repeatedly smacked her seat back and then jammed his knees into it, causing her to leap up. He chanted "Kill you, kill you" to the couple. At one point Kragh took out his cell phone and ostensibly made a call to Chicago—his end of the conversation was loud enough that everyone around could hear—in which he described the woman's husband and gave the flight information in detail. "Kill him when the plane arrives in Chicago," he said. "I want him taken out tonight."

Alerted by flight attendants, the pilot deviated from his flight path and quietly touched down at 3:55 p.m., well before the jet was scheduled to arrive in Chicago. The door opened and eight law-enforcement officers and airport officials trotted on board, led by Police Sergeant Ward Gagner, who is six feet three inches tall and weighs 225 pounds. The passengers were eerily silent as the squad walked through the cabin, until Gagner stopped at row 27. Then somebody said, "Uh-oh."

Kragh protested his eviction from the jet, claiming variously that he had diplomatic immunity, that he paid U.S. taxes, and that he was an American Airlines platinum-card holder with three million frequent-flyer miles. None of these statements proved persuasive; he was handcuffed and taken off the plane to a waiting cruiser. On the tarmac he repeatedly asked if this were an elaborate joke, and twice inquired if he were on Candid Camera.

He wasn't, Gagner told him. He was in Bangor, Maine.

Bangor, a city of 33,000, has recently emerged as a sort of pit-stop gulag for disruptive overseas passengers. "They have a nice little cottage industry going there," Alison Duquette, a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration, told me earlier this year. During one five-week period last summer three flights with unruly passengers were diverted to this quiet regional airport. According to Jeff Russell, the airport's marketing manager, eight to twelve flights each year drop into Bangor to unload problem passengers. The airport earns $750 to $3,000 per landing, depending on services required, plus fuel revenues.

The city didn't set out to become the Sing Sing of the skies, at least not initially. The role was thrust upon it in large part by geography. Depending on which way a transatlantic plane is headed, Bangor can be the first or the last major airport in the United States. The city has capitalized on this fact before. As home to an Air Force base until 1968 and, subsequently, as a commercial-flight stopover, Bangor did a booming business servicing short-range planes, which needed to refuel before crossing the Atlantic. In the early 1990s the city optimistically built a modern international terminal, with four gates, seating for about 450, and a snack bar equipped to accept British and Finnish currency.

Unfortunately for Bangor, though, the charter companies that were providing the bulk of the airport's international business prospered, and soon they traded up to newer, long-range jets capable of flying to their final destinations without refueling. Other than a trickle of charters that still use older jets, the occasional diversion for a medical emergency, and a dozen or so flights each week that hit unexpectedly strong headwinds and decide to top off their tanks, there is little international air traffic in Bangor these days. Most of the time the new terminal is empty.

On clear days Russell can look out the window of his office at the airport and see contrails etch their way across the blue sky. During the summer peak some 400 to 700 flights a day pass over or near Maine, and the great majority keep right on going, as scheduled. But several years ago some of those that didn't caught Russell's attention.

Russell began to notice that Bangor occupied a sort of geographic flash point for passengers on the verge of a meltdown. "Trouble seems to develop within two hundred and fifty nautical miles of Bangor, on the outbound as well as on the inbound," he told me during a recent visit to the airport. "My theory on this is, hey, you've eaten your food, watched the movie, had a nap. Now it's time to act up."

Although air rage has gotten a lot of press lately, it's hardly a recent phenomenon. Obnoxious passengers have always disrupted flights. In 1969, for example, Jim Morrison, of The Doors, along with a friend ("two hippie-appearing individuals," the FBI reported), was ejected from a flight after smoking cigars, drinking immoderately, and loudly comparing the emergency oxygen masks to contraceptive devices.

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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