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Maine airport ensuring skies stay friendly

BANGOR, Maine (AP) -- It sounds like a bad joke: An international traveler has a few too many drinks on the plane, causes a ruckus and wakes up in a jail cell -- in Bangor, Maine.

But three Brits currently housed in the county jail aren't laughing. As air rage increases, more and more trans-Atlantic pilots are making pit stops here to drop off unruly passengers."It's like being chucked off the bus," says Jeff Russell, marketing director at the Bangor International Airport. "I'm sure it's an unpleasant surprise to wake up in Bangor."

The airport embraces its role of taking menacing passengers out of the friendly skies.

In an average year, eight to 12 planes divert to Bangor to drop off belligerent passengers, like an Italian tourist who assaulted a flight attendant last spring when she told him he couldn't smoke in the bathroom.

About 25 percent of landings are by pilots who never planned on coming here but land for mechanical malfunctions or medical and refueling emergencies. They take advantage of the runway at this former Air Force base, which at 11,439 feet is long enough to accommodate the space shuttle.

The number of nasty passengers seems to be growing.

In the last five weeks, three British men have ended their travels in Bangor after acting up in the air.

Bryan Neal, a 25-year-old from Milton Keynes, England, woke up in the Penobscot County Jail after smashing video equipment and a Plexiglass interior window on his May 3 flight from Florida to England.

He was so drunk that he doesn't remember breaking the window or telling fellow passengers he hoped they would "get sucked out and die," his lawyer says.

Neal pleaded guilty in federal court to interfering with a flight crew. In state court, he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and failure to submit to arrest. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and ordered to pay $28,875 restitution to Airtours International.

On June 5, two Delta Air Lines flight attendants were treated at a Bangor hospital after Christopher Bayes, 41, of Manchester attacked them for refusing to give him more alcohol on his flight from Atlanta to England.

After a bloody clash, the flight attendants tied Bayes up with linen napkins from first class and sat on him until they reached the gate.

Bayes was charged with assault, interference with a flight crew and causing an aircraft to make an unscheduled landing.

In the third case, Shabiyah Negus Davidson, 18, of West Midlands, England, went berserk May 26 and grabbed a female passenger by the throat on his flight from Jamaica to Amsterdam.

Police said he lost control after ingesting a potentially lethal dose of cocaine he was smuggling in a swallowed plastic bag. Davidson was charged with assault.

"Three in a month is getting to be a little much," says FBI Special Agent Paul Palumbo, who handles the air rage incidents with a partner. "We have to go out in the middle of the night and meet the plane, which is no fun. Once or twice a year would be fine."

The inconvenience is shared by passengers who are delayed and airlines that lose thousands of dollars. For landing fees and services, Bangor International collects up to $5,000 on each flight diverted here, Russell says.

Cynthia Kain, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington, says air rage is a growing problem. "Imagine going to work with the expectation that you might be screamed at, hit or kicked while doing your job," she says.

The union is supporting proposed legislation in Congress that would ban offenders from air travel for a year and raise the penalty for interfering with a flight crew from $1,100 to $25,000.

Delta Air Lines, which diverted Flight 064 to drop Bayes in Bangor, has no tolerance for unruly passengers.

"You are going to be put on the ground and when the door opens the law is there waiting for you," says spokesman Bill Barry in Atlanta. "We make it clear that if you are going to be one of those very few abusive passengers, you will face the full penalty of the law."

Statistics compiled by government agencies indicate that 25 percent of air rage incidents involve alcohol; 16 percent, disputes over seating assignments; 10 percent, smokers who can't light up; 9 percent, carry-on luggage; 8 percent, problems with flight attendants; and 5 percent, food.

But Bangor, home to horror writer Stephen King and a 31-foot statue of Paul Bunyan, is happy to welcome these hostile passengers and the planes that drop them off.

"A lot of people come off the airplane and say 'Bangor where?"' Russell says.

"We do become the butt of the joke, but look who's laughing now."