San Diego Union-Tribune

July 14, 2001

Feinstein: Airlines should set drink limit

By DANA WILKIE 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein's inspiration may have been the
flight attendant who told her of the drunken passenger who had to be subdued at 35,000 feet. Perhaps it came from increasing reports of air rage, or from Feinstein's own in-flight observations of loud, abusive people who'd had one too many.

Whatever the reason, the California senator yesterday asked the executives of seven major airlines to voluntarily limit passengers to two alcoholic drinks on domestic flights. If not, she said, she will try to do it for them.

"I think it's an idea whose time has come," said Feinstein, who plans to push
legislation imposing a two-drink limit on wine, beer and spirits should airlines
fail to do so. "I think the airlines owe (the public) safe passage, and I don't
think you have safe passage under overcrowded, frustrating conditions where
alcohol flows freely."

If airline executives disregard Feinstein's request -- and indications are they
will -- it is unclear if Feinstein can rally the political will for her cause.

The Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines, makes
large campaign gifts to members of the House and Senate committees that
would consider the senator's legislation. While Feinstein might get a
sympathetic ear from Democrats who run the Senate, it will be harder selling
her idea to Republicans in the House.

And though her plan may be embraced by flight attendants who must handle
intoxicated and disruptive passengers, much of the flying public might be cool
to the idea.

"You can't punish hundreds of millions (of passengers) for the unruly and
often-times illegal behavior of a few," said Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association. Wascom said it is illegal for passengers to
bring their own alcohol aboard, and for crew members to serve alcohol to
someone who is intoxicated.

Union and industry representatives estimate that alcohol contributes to as
much as 40 percent of air-rage incidents.

Last April alone, a man was sentenced to four years in prison for smashing a
vodka bottle in a flight attendant's face; guitarist Peter Buck of the pop band
R.E.M. was charged with two counts of assaulting crew members while
allegedly drunk; and pilots diverted a United Airlines flight after twin sisters
got into a drunken brawl -- allegedly spitting on, punching and choking several crew members.

Interfering with a flight crew is a felony, punishable by up to 20 years in
prison, $10,000 in criminal penalties and $25,000 in civil fines.

What constitutes an episode of air rage and how it is reported can vary. The
Federal Aviation Administration reported 592 incidents in 1998 and 1999
combined, buy the Air Transport Association says there are about 4,000 a
year.

While flying from San Francisco to Washington last Sunday, Feinstein talked
with a United Airlines attendant who described how a crew member once had to leave the cockpit to subdue a drunken passenger.

The senator said she has witnessed the loud and abusive behavior of
intoxicated passengers.

"I'm not saying that all the cause of violence is alcohol," said Feinstein, who
occasionally drinks wine. "I'm saying alcohol is a major contributor."

In her letter to the chief executives of Delta, Continental, Northwest, US
Airways, United, Southwest and American Airlines, Feinstein warned that if
the airlines don't set drinking standards, "Congress may well step in."

The Association of Flight Attendants has long sought stricter alcohol-serving
policies, though members disagree about how they would enforce drink limits. A passenger refused a drink by one attendant, for instance, might be able to buy it from another.

The Federal Aviation Administration had no comment on Feinstein's proposal. Airlines are not allowed to serve alcoholic beverages to any person who appears to be intoxicated, but the FAA has been criticized for lax
enforcement of these rules.

Opponents of Feinstein's proposal noted that some passengers get obnoxious
after just one drink, while others remain amiable after several. They also said
someone can easily get intoxicated at the airport bar before boarding.

"There are more problems in our aviation system than alcohol on the
airplanes," said one senior Republican House staffer.