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Airlines crack down on unruly travelers

Pilots have made unscheduled stops in S.L. more than once

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It has been slightly more than a year since two Louisiana college students boarded American Airlines Flight 330 in Vancouver, carrying bottles of Crown Royal whiskey instead of the more traditional airplane fare of CD players and reading material.

Soon stripped of their personal supply, the intoxicated young men moved on to minibottles pilfered from the flight attendants' cart, resulting in a confrontation, complete with profanity and plastic handcuffs. With several hours left on the Dallas-bound flight, and unaware how the men would continue to behave, the pilot decided to make an unscheduled stop in Salt Lake City.

Since the May 27, 2003, diversion, Andrew Maxwell and Jacques Laboureur have spent numerous nights in jail and several hours in Utah's federal courthouse. They have written more than 100 letters of apology to each of the Dallas-bound flight's passengers and crew members.

And they've learned a hard lesson: Bad behavior at 30,000 feet will not be tolerated.

The experience has left Maxwell, a 21-year-old University of New Orleans business graduate, and Laboureur, a 23-year-old communications major, thoroughly chagrined.

At their sentencing last month, the men were reluctant to talk about their case and went out of their way to avoid a newspaper photographer. Each of their responses to U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell — who sentenced the young men to two years' probation and a $500 fine — ended in "Yes, ma'am" and even "Yes, ma'am, your honor."

Boys will be boys?

The pair's plea agreement with prosecutors, which allowed them to avoid a felony conviction, was largely contingent on their continued good behavior and acceptance of responsibility.

Still, Maxwell and Labourer admitted to being surprised at the severity of the government's response to what some would call simple, albeit stupid, adolescent behavior.

"There's a lower tolerance for bad behavior on airplanes that has nothing to do with terrorists. . . . These are just college kids who had too much to drink," said Rebecca Hyde, Maxwell's court-appointed defense attorney.

The U.S. attorney for Utah, Paul Warner, who personally made the decision to file criminal charges in the case, said his office has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to passenger misconduct on an aircraft.

"The decision to charge criminally is based not only on the actors and the incident, but there's a criminal basis that we have to apply," Utah's top federal prosecutor said. "And also, quite frankly, on the seriousness of the behavior."

And in the case of Maxwell and Labourer, Warner said, the behavior crossed the line. "Their behavior was really bad-boy behavior. Stealing liquor, drunk, unruly, profane."

Things could have been much worse for the men. Maxwell and Labourer were originally charged with interference with a flight crew, a federal felony that carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence. Although it's highly unlikely they would have received a sentence anywhere near that long, some jail time would probably have been imposed had the men been convicted of the charge.

"These were young kids; they were foolish, and they made a serious mistake," Warner said. "On the other hand, I didn't want to destroy their lives with felony convictions just as they were starting their lives. I wanted to get their attention. They were young adults, but they were acting extremely childish."

Hyde said prosecutors took the role of a "stern father" in the case by allowing the men to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of theft on an aircraft and aiding and abetting.

Still, she said, "I wouldn't go so far as to say they were particularly lenient. I think the government took a pretty tough stand by charging them criminally."

Pilot in command

The decision to land a flight short of its original destination rests entirely with the pilot of the aircraft.

"Generally speaking, when there is an issue on board the plane having to do with unruly passengers or suspicious passengers, it's pilot's discretion," said Mike Fierberg, public affairs manager for the Transportation Security Administration. "It's his or her aircraft. Period. That discretion is virtually never going to be challenged.

"We call them pilots in command for a reason."

Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, and pilots take several factors into account before deciding to land the plane. In addition to evaluating the risk posed by a passenger, Fierberg said, pilots must consider the cost of bringing the plane down, the inconvenience to the other passengers and the impact on connecting flights.

There are no statistics on how many times a flight has been diverted to Salt Lake City, but the U.S. Attorney's Office has brought charges in three such cases since August 2002. And another man, Robert Neal Morgan, was charged for his behavior on a Salt Lake-bound flight.

In April, a Los Angeles-to-New York flight landed in Salt Lake City after a man refused to place his carry-on bag beneath his seat and repeatedly ignited a lighter that looked like a cellular phone. That man was not charged.

Warner supports a pilot's decision to land a plane for whatever reason, saying it's best to err on the side of safety.

"We understand and respect the exigencies of flight crews and pilots having to make decisions at 30,000 feet," he said. "That's not the place for them to be cavalier. I think they wisely have been making decisions to bring those planes down."

Of course, none of those charged in Utah have had ties with terrorism or posed a threat to national security. Still, those in the airline industry say out-of-control passengers can be a real cause for concern.

"It may simply be a function of if you have a passenger or passengers that do not comply with crew members' requests, that in itself is a problem," said Gregg Overman, communications director of the Allied Pilots Association.

"As a general rule, if you have a passenger or passengers who are unwilling to comply with what they're being asked to do by a crew member then you do have a problem."

In December 2003, a Delta Air Lines pilot landed a Cincinnati-to-Portland flight in Salt Lake City due to increasingly unruly behavior by a passenger. According to court documents, the problem began when Scott Patrick Green became verbally abusive toward a flight attendant when asked to move to his correct seat. It continued with Green allegedly smoking in the lavatory, getting out of his seat when the seat-belt light was lit and accusing a flight attendant of opening his carry-on bag.

Green, 34, was arrested in Salt Lake City and subsequently charged with interference with flight crew members, attempted theft aboard an aircraft and making a false statement. Green has pleaded not guilty and was released pending trial but failed to appear at an April hearing. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.

In a written statement, Green allegedly confessed to "getting drunk/high on pills" on the flight, according to court documents.

Which, according to those in the airline industry, is a common problem.

"Let's face it, there are intoxicated passengers on an airline every day. They certainly don't always require a diversion," Fierberg said.

But, he said, "If (passengers) continue to drink and get more intoxicated, the range of unacceptable behavior becomes wider and more probable. And therefore, under the circumstances, you have an increasing probability of a threat rather than a decreasing one."

Overman agreed. "You have to consider it from the flight attendants' perspective. They're responsible for the safe evacuation of a plane in the case of an emergency. If you have passengers who are extremely intoxicated, or even incapacitated at that point, that could make the process more difficult.

"There are various factors that go into a decision like that, some of which are not always readily apparent."

The Sept. 11 factor

While it may be a natural assumption that planes are being diverted in larger numbers since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, those involved in the incidents don't believe that to be the case.

"I don't see any increase, to be honest with you, post-9/11 in the actual numbers," said Warner, who has served as Utah's U.S. attorney for the past six years. "What the difference is is how we view it as federal prosecutors. That's changed dramatically."

"People in the post-9/11 world need to understand that there is very little tolerance for bad-boy behavior," he added.

The TSA's Fierberg also thinks the diversions get more publicity than they did prior to Sept. 11.

"People notice when these things happen," he said. "I tend to think they get a little more attention when they happen, but I don't have any hard-and-fast evidence that they're more common than they used to be."

Still, Maxwell's attorney wonders if increased sensitivity caused by the terrorist attacks didn't play some role in the pilot's decision.

"I just think that maybe before Sept. 11 they wouldn't have landed that plane," Hyde said. "It certainly wasn't the kind of situation where you have somebody assaulting passengers."

Overman, whose organization represents 13,000 American Airlines pilots, said pilots may very well be more sensitive these days to misconduct.

"I don't think they're any less sensitive, that's for sure," he said. "Maybe just a little less tolerant of nonsense like that."

E-mail: awelling@desnews.com