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Gander hits air-rage jackpot

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Gander hits air-rage jackpot

Old 8th Jul 2001, 18:10
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Post Gander hits air-rage jackpot

Gander hits air-rage jackpot
National Post
(A1 / Front; Business; Crime - Fri 06 Jul 2001)Siobhan Roberts

By the time Daniel Newhouse was airborne last August on his direct flight from New York to Tel Aviv, the drinks he had imbibed on the ground had been upgraded by the thinning air to the potency of Newfoundland's lethal Screech rum. Also mixed into the cocktail of his volatile body chemistry were prescription painkillers.

Soon, Mr. Newhouse became violent. The pilot was alerted and the plane was diverted to off-load its problem passenger.

"This guy was big, young, strong, really violent and fighting -- it was one of those worst-case scenarios," said Corporal Carl Smith, one of the RCMP officers who met the plane and removed Mr. Newhouse. "When we took over it was a fight all the way ... [He was] babbling on and on about things that were incomprehensible. He had no idea what he had done and no idea where he was."

Where Mr. Newhouse had landed himself was Gander, Nfld. -- an outpost that has developed a cottage industry around air rage.

According to RCMP files, in the last year and a half Gander International Airport has directed at least 13 planes on to its
airfield apron for the sole purpose of ejecting raving individuals -- people known, in aviation jargon, as "unruly passengers."

"There are economic benefits as a result of air rage, that's for sure," said Angela Dahlberg, a Calgary-based aviation consultant and author of the recent book Air Rage, The Underestimated Safety Risk.

"Gander is where [airplanes] will be touching down if something were to happen en route to Europe, or coming from overseas, and they need to get a troublemaker off the aircraft."

And naturally, she said, Gander will capitalize on the business opportunity of taking care of aggravated passengers who are stranded and inconvenienced.

"We're the lifeboat of the North Atlantic," said Geoff Tucker, Gander International's marketing manager. Though as Mr. Tucker sees it, air rage is only one of many inflight emergencies that divert planes to Gander and buoy its economy. With a hospital only six minutes away and RCMP headquarters on airport property, Gander is ready and waiting for a diversion of any kind, whether it involves medical or mechanical difficulties, a bomb scare or hijacking.

By comparison, Pearson airport in Toronto reports many more incidents of air rage (185 in 1998, 201 in 1999 and 183 in 2000). But as Constable Malcolm Bow, at the Airport Division of the Peel Police, explained it, those are mostly scheduled Pearson landings that produce for the airport no financial bonus, just bother.

Every air-rage flight diverted to Gander, however, produces an unexpected and welcome tourist.

In May, Angeliki Gouli, an 18-year-old Greek woman, forced an American jet to land in Gander -- en route from Frankfurt to Charlotte, N.C. -- after she was caught smoking in the bathroom and refused to comply with a flight attendant's instructions. She caused a disturbance and
the plane made an emergency landing (she later pleaded guilty to heroin possession as well).

The captain of that aircraft estimated the diversion to Gander cost the company $200,000.

Most memorable from last summer was an incident involving a Parisian, Erick Bohbot, flying home from New York.

"Oh boy, we'll never forget Mr. Bohbot," said Cpl. Smith. "He was an individual who caused some problems."

Mr. Bohbot was dropped off in Gander and found guilty in Newfoundland's provincial court of harassing his fellow passengers.
His sentence was time served while waiting for his court hearing and a fine of $500. An extra seven days were added to his jail sentence, however, after he caused another disturbance: he got upset when the desk clerk at his Gander hotel refused a bribe of $500 to get him a prostitute. Mr. Bohbot told the clerk he had a gun and was in the
Mafia and then threatened to kill the clerk. (According to the RCMP, his episode of post-air-rage rage was caused by withdrawal from
prescribed psychiatric medication, medication that had continued on to Paris with his luggage.)

Mr. Bohbot's $500 fine and his hotel bill, his attempted bribe and subsequent visit to a local hospital for psychiatric evaluation are only a few examples of the many contributions an unexpected air-rage pitstop injects into the Gander economy (a town of 10,000, Gander has a disproportionate 500 hotel rooms -- though after the Bohbot kerfuffle, the RCMP have noticed that it is considerably more difficult to find a hotel willing to put up post-air-rage guests).

The airport itself receives a landing fee ranging from $1,500 to $3,500, depending on the type of plane (there is a discount for
frequent stoppers).

Then there are the profits for contracted companies that make up the airport infrastructure. Allied Aviation Service, for example, provides for crews to refuel planes that had to dump fuel in order to land and
rejigs flight plans for approval by air traffic control.

"We supply anything the airline needs," said Dion Faulkner of Allied Aviation.

There is also Weston's Concessions Limited, run by Weston Simms, which caters to the airplanes and the airport.

"If a flight is diverted here for two hours, it's certainly a plus," he said. "The more of them the better -- the airline doesn't like to see us but we like to see them."

Weston's provides everything from $4 sandwiches to $400 seafood platters or freshly squeezed orange juice at $30 a jug. The pricier items cater to yet another type of flyer that frequently makes pitstops at Gander: celebrities travelling in private jets. Gander's in-transit lounge boasts a wall of fame including photos of Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Dan Rather, Andre Agassi and Clint Eastwood.

According to Mr. Tucker, it is Gander's remote but strategic location at the longitude of 54.34 W that positions it to reap these economic benefits -- it is the most easterly point on the Atlantic seaboard, farther east even than Bangor, Me., which has also developed an air-rage economy.

"All you have to do is look at the great circle route," said Mr. Tucker, "which is the jet stream that airplanes like to fly going back and forth to Europe, and Gander is right on course. Last year the Gander air traffic control centre handled over 340,000 flights."

That number includes all the flights that pass through Gander's air space, most without touching down. But Mr. Tucker said that 80% of those 340,000 planes mark Gander on their flight plans as their alternate landing spot before or after crossing the North Atlantic.

But even more than the good fortune of its geography, Gander's biggest selling point, as Mr. Tucker pitches it to airlines, is the airport's quick turnaround times -- an easy sell for pilots with planes full of passengers who would rather not have stopped at all.

"We'll post our turnaround time against any airport in the world," Mr. Tucker said.

"There are pilots who've actually said to other pilots, 'I landed in Gander and I was refuelled and out and on my way again in less than an hour.' And they say, 'No, it can't happen.' But it does happen. That's
our specialty."

Being an aviation service station accommodating incidents of air rage and the like has done wonders for Gander. Its population of 10,000 has actually increased, and its unemployment rate, currently at 12.2%, is among Newfoundland's lowest (the rate in St. John's is 14%).

Nearly 200 residents are employed as air traffic controllers, responsible for charting the entire northeast and earning $100,000 to $150,000 per year.

Gander has historically been a community that depended on its air traffic to survive economically.

"That's why Gander was built," explained Mr. Tucker. "The airport was built first, the town came after."

Even the Mounties, though responsible for unruly passengers, enjoy some air-rage perks: the free international travel that comes as a by-product of escorting an unruly passenger home (the airlines refuse to take them without an escort).

Three members of the Gander detachment just travelled to Greece, for example, with Ms. Gouli in tow.

Cpl. Smith has done a trip to France and another to New Jersey, where he dropped off Mr. Newhouse.

"We had no problems with him during the flight," Cpl. Smith said. "We tell these people during the escorts that if they act like proper ladies and gentlemen, then we can put the handcuffs and leg irons away."

In Mr. Newhouse's case, his mother was waiting for him at the airport. He behaved himself, Cpl. Smith said, and was pologetic for what had happened, although he insisted he couldn't remember it.

"When he was sober he was the nicest guy you'd ever meet," Cpl. Smith said. "He was a Hebrew Bible student who'd been on his way to university in Israel to study his faith."
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