We’ve all heard about air rage. There were lots of cases of it when the rules about wearing masks on planes were in place.
However, air rage isn’t new to air travel. It’s been happening for decades (The first recorded case of air rage was on a flight from Havana to Miami, in 1947 – a drunk man assaulted another passenger and a flight attendant), over mixed-up seats, smoking in the lavatory, fliers not getting the kind of service they expected, and lots of other things that, for whatever reason, set someone off.
“Air rage is disruptive or violent behavior on the part of passengers and crew of aircraft, especially during flight. Air rage generally covers both behavior of a passenger that is likely caused by physiological or psychological stresses associated with air travel, and when a passenger becomes unruly, angry, or violent on an aircraft during a flight. Excessive consumption of alcohol by the passengers is often a cause.” (thanks, Wikipedia!)
Air rage can end with the extremes of the passenger being restrained and/or an emergency landing of the plane, or the person calming down via de-escalation techniques and/or exhaustion. And at least one time, air rage led to a tragic ending. Case in point, back in mid-2000, a man on a Southwest flight was killed by his fellow passengers after he lost emotional control and tried to enter the plane’s cockpit during the flight.
On August 11, 2000, Southwest Airlines flight 1763 was on its regularly scheduled flight from McCarran International Airport to Salt Lake City International Airport. About 20 minutes before landing, Jonathan Burton, age 19, suddenly stormed the cockpit door and tried to get in (this was a year before 9/11, and it was relatively easy for a passenger to get into the cockpit if they tried hard enough).
Crew members tried to restrain him but other passengers aboard the flight lept into action to assist, and eight of them restrained Burton. Unfortunately, the force they used asphyxiated him, and he died. The autopsy also found evidence of blunt force trauma to the face, neck and torso.
The autopsy also discovered that Burton had low levels of marijuana in his body, but this was a ‘highly unlikely explanation’ for his violent outburst. However, he had no history of outbursts like this and no history of mental health issues or problems with violence.
Burton was flying to UT to go to his aunt and uncle’s house. He was looking forward to a summer spent with his family, something he had done since childhood.
On the plane, he reportedly started acting erratically. He took a beverage from the drink cart instead of waiting to be served. He also rummaged the galley for packs of peanuts.
After a few minutes, his behavior escalated, and he started pacing up and down the aircraft. ABC News reported one passenger said that, “When he walked past me, he was mumbling and he seemed anxious.”
Towards the front of the plane by this point, Burton suddenly started shouting, “I can fly this plane, I can fly this plane,” and began kicking the cockpit door. Another passenger said it, “looked like he was intent on going in there [the cockpit], but it looked like the pilots were intent on pushing him out.”
Burton was eventually led to an exit row, where several male passengers guarded him. At the same time, volunteers gathered to guard the cockpit door.
Burton seemed to calm down a bit, but reportedly still had a “spacey” look in his eyes. During the plane’s final descent, Burton escalated again, this time punching some people, and spitting on others.
A group of men grabbed Burton and restrained him on the floor. Some sat on his limbs to keep him still.
One passenger said, “They were scared. It felt like he was taking over the plane.”
Another reported hearing someone shouting, “Hurt him! Beat him up!”
Yet another passenger, Dean Harvey, a Canadian, suggested some did just that – a large man wearing boots repeatedly kicked Burton while he was on the floor.
Said Harvey, “I felt this group, particularly this one man, was out of control. He was stomping on Jonathan’s chest, one foot at a time, I don’t know what the rest of the group was doing other than holding him.”
“He [Burton] was basically 100 percent defenseless at this time. … I remember thinking no one can take a pounding like this.”
Harvey continued, “I asked him [the one man kicking him in the chest] to stop. I said, ‘You’ve got the guy subdued. What more do you want? You don’t have to pound his head in.'”
He later remarked to his traveling partner: “I think they’re killing him back there.”
When the police came on board, Burton was unconscious; 5 or 6 men were still restraining him, with their feet on his head, throat and right arm. Another passenger held his left arm. He was bleeding from his mouth, had a “huge knot” and “discoloration” on forehead, and contusions on his chest.
Burton was still alive when he was handcuffed and removed from the plane, but died at a local hospital not long afterward.
A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines said at the time: ”We stand behind the conduct and actions of our flight crew, and we understand and appreciate the feelings of the passengers on board, including those who took steps to protect themselves and others.”
”This was a stressful situation resulting from Mr. Burton’s repeated attempts to kick through the cockpit door,” the representative continued. ”The lives of 137 people were in the balance.”
However, a lawyer for Burton’s mother, Janet Burton, argued: “I’m certainly not going to say they shouldn’t have restrained him. But once he was restrained, the tables turned and the restrainers were out of control. Who was there to control them?”
The death was eventually ruled as a homicide, but then-U.S. Attorney Paul M. Warner didn’t press charges, arguing that there was no evidence of criminal intent and that the other passengers acted in self-defense.
Obviously, this was an extreme incident. One guy has some sort of medical event that causes what looks like air rage, and is killed by passengers who may have had their own air rage. Sad, scary and tragic, huh?
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