Man's death heightens concern over 'air rage'

Friday, September 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Airlines cite need to protect other flyers' lives.

Jonathan Burton twice stormed the cockpit door of Southwest Airlines Flight 1763, hitting it with such force that the thin door panels shattered.

He shoved a flight attendant and hit a passenger before eight others helped pin him, flailing, to the cabin floor. Within an hour, the 19-year-old had died at the hands of those who stopped his rampage.

Law enforcement officials declined to file criminal charges against the passengers, saying that they had acted to save the lives of more than 120 people on the plane. But Mr. Burton's death on the Aug. 11 flight from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City has prompted the airline industry to examine what – if anything – can be done to prevent a similar occurrence.

Should flight attendants receive basic training in how to deal with passengers who become prisoners? Is it possible to keep other passengers from becoming too zealous in their attempts to subdue a person who may be threatening the safety of all on board?

Fuel was added to the debate Thursday when a Canadian newspaper quoted a passenger who said he witnessed a man climb onto a seat and repeatedly jump on Mr. Burton's chest while four others held him still. Passenger Dean Harvey told the Edmonton Journal that he asked the man to stop.

"I said, 'You've got the guy subdued, what more do you want? You don't have to pound his head in.' The guy was being held with his arms outstretched. He had no chance to absorb the shock."

FBI officials said Thursday that they had contacted Mr. Harvey and had arranged for him to give an interview to Canadian law officers.

Southwest officials defended the actions of the flight crew and said that of the dozens of passengers interviewed, the Canadian passenger's account is the first to suggest excessive force.

"You have to remember that it was utter pandemonium on that airplane," said Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart. "This was a guy who was trying to hijack the airplane."

Does burden shift?

Kent Spence, a lawyer for Mr. Burton's family said that once the 190-pound man became a prisoner instead of a passenger, the flight attendants became responsible for his safety.

"The duty of an airline is to make sure their passengers are safe," he said. "Everyone allowed it to happen, including Southwest. Why didn't someone let him breathe?"

Authorities said Mr. Burton died of suffocation.

An autopsy report has not been released, but Mr. Spence has made public selected portions that indicate that Mr. Burton had suffered numerous blunt-force injuries, including scrapes and bruises on his torso, face and neck. Mr. Spence said the report showed that Mr. Burton had been choked and that someone had stood on his neck.

Flight attendants say the incident represents one of their biggest nightmares.

"If an angry passenger can get into the cockpit, he can bring down an airplane," said Renee Sheffer, a flight attendant for USAirways and the president of the Air Rage Foundation.

Her nonprofit group, based in Charlotte, N.C., works to improve flight attendants' training and response from law officers. Ms. Sheffer was badly injured in 1998 by a passenger who tried to storm the cockpit of a Boeing 757.

Ms. Sheffer said current flight attendant training, which focuses on defusing potentially violent confrontations, is inadequate.

"Flight attendants need to be trained in techniques that will allow them to quickly take control of an unruly passenger," she said.

Officials from several airlines said that they will probably consider changing flight attendants' training, but that each solution poses new problems.

"If your flight attendants all have black belts and that doesn't work, do you then get stun guns?" said Mr. Stewart of Southwest.

Kathy Lord-Jones, national safety coordinator for American's flight attendants union, said that things can quickly get out of control in an emotionally charged cabin.

Resisting a threat

"People react very strongly if somebody is threatening their safety," she said. "Can I as a flight attendant control a mob of other passengers if they are doing what they think is necessary to stop somebody from killing them? Probably not."

Southwest officials said that the passengers and crew clearly thought Mr. Burton was trying to bring down the airplane. Officials from Southwest's pilots union and flight attendants union declined to comment.

According to law enforcement officials and Southwest's accounts of interviews with passengers and flight attendants, the incident unfolded like this:

About 20 minutes before the flight was scheduled to land, Mr. Burton grabbed a drink from a tray as a flight attendant walked past. She told him: "Sir, that's not your drink. Can I get you something when I go to the back?"

A few seconds later, he turned to a fellow passenger and asked, "Where are we going?"

Passenger Christy Gibson of Las Vegas, who was sitting one row in front of Mr. Burton, said that he seemed very nervous when he walked to the front of the airplane. She said she did not hear him say he wanted to take over the airplane, but she heard him kick the cockpit door.

"He was really kicking that door, like karate kicking, frantically trying to get in," she said.

Officials said he tried twice to break into the cockpit, screamed obscenities and demanded to be let inside.

"I have to open the door. I can fly this thing. Who's flying this plane?" several passengers reported hearing him say.

Mr. Burton returned voluntarily to his seat in the exit row, where two men tried to calm him.

"He acted really scared, like he was terrified of flying," Ms. Gibson said. At one point, she said, she heard him say: "No, I'm fine. It's just the drugs."

Ms. Gibson said that the 19-year-old became uncontrollable after a flight attendant brought another passenger, an off-duty police officer, to help escort him to the rear of the plane for landing.

"He started going nuts when he found out the guy was a police officer," she said.

Ms. Gibson said she could see several male passengers struggling with Mr. Burton near the rear of the airplane. She said she saw nobody hit him after he was down.

"I don't think anybody intentionally wanted to hurt him," she said. "If they put too much pressure on him, it was because he was so hard to hold down."

Mr. Burton's family described him as a nonviolent person who was excited about visiting relatives in Salt Lake City. Mr. Burton was not on any prescribed medication, though the autopsy found small traces of the active ingredient in marijuana, Mr. Spence said.

"The family has not been told what happened. Southwest never explained any of the facts about what happened," he said. "I don't think he [Mr. Burton] was berserk. I don't think he was unprovoked."

FBI Special Agent Bill Matthews, who is overseeing the investigation for the bureau's Salt Lake City office, declined to say whether FBI officials believed that unnecessary force was used.

"I think the fact that the U.S. attorney's office decided not to prosecute kind of speaks for itself," he said.

Staff writer Katherine Yung contributed to this report.