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.

What has changed, and dramatically, is the airlines' response to such behavior. In the past unwanted passengers were more often than not escorted off at the nearest airport and left to fend for themselves. Being abandoned in a strange city was considered punishment enough. Faced with an increase in both the number and the scariness of incidents, however, the government and the airlines began prosecuting offenders vigorously and imposing serious fines and jail time. Last April, Congress raised the maximum civil fine from $1,100 to $25,000 per violation (a single air-rage incident may involve several violations).

Sensing an opportunity, Bangor International Airport expanded its menu of services for overseas flights to include the quick processing of problem passengers. "If you're in the business of getting people to stop at your airport for fuel or whatever, you take situations like this and you run with them," Russell said.

Bangor ran with its situation by assembling a team that could handle air-rage situations with efficiency and dispatch, and then discreetly spreading the word about its service. Successful prosecution of an unruly passenger requires that federal agents be on hand to take statements from witnesses, which can consume a significant amount of time at a busy airport (as can finding an open gate to begin with, and later queuing to take off). "The captain wants to stay in control," Ward Gagner says. "They want to get in and get out. They could land at JFK, but then they'd be just a number."

Once a pilot with a disruptive passenger radios ahead to Bangor, the airport activates its team, which can be ready with twenty minutes' notice. The team typically includes members of the Bangor police department, customs officers, and FBI agents, who are based at a federal office building only ten minutes by car from the airport. When the jet lands, it is usually directed to an isolated corner of the tarmac. Ramps are rolled up to the plane, the door is opened, and the team spills into the cabin. "We never like to go aboard with just one person," says Gagner, who is stationed at the airport and handles many of the incidents. "We like to overwhelm with a show of force—the doors open up and there are a bunch of uniforms. The passengers are relieved."

When I first heard of the team, I imagined a taciturn posse of Russell Crowe types in black watch caps carrying rucksacks filled with grapples, their heads crammed with details about the precise layout of every Boeing in case they needed to remove panels and enter covertly through the lavatory. But as it turns out, the team consists of various regular officers and agents; it doesn't even stage practice air-rage drills. Gagner likens the handling of an air-rage episode (somewhat disappointingly) to "removing a drunk patron from a bar." He says, "Usually we go on board and the flight attendants are backed off and they just point in the general direction. There's usually a guy on the floor with three or four napkins tied around his wrists, or with a passenger sitting on him."

As with many action-packed endeavors, the real superstars are those who handle paperwork most expeditiously, and here Bangor shines. Before a flight even touches down, updated flight plans and weather briefings are in the works. "Our turnaround time is often under an hour," Russell told me. "You'll spend more time taxiing at a major airport than you will having an air-rage incident dealt with here."

American Airlines Flight 67 was a case in point. The flight landed, Jorgen Kragh was taken to the county lockup, the FBI took statements from passengers who had been sitting near Kragh, and the plane refueled and was back in the air, headed for Chicago, at 5:20 p.m.—only eighty-five minutes after it had touched down. (The next day, at the federal courthouse in Bangor, Kragh pleaded no contest to a charge of simple assault and was sentenced to twenty-one days in prison and a $5,000 fine.)

The FAA says that the number of reported air-rage incidents dipped from 310 in 1999 to 266 in 2000, although it acknowledges that many incidents go unreported. Russell agrees that the problem is worse than the numbers suggest, and he suspects that we're not yet over the hump. "I think it's going to get worse before it gets better," he told me. And Bangor, he is confident, will be ready when it does.