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Russia debates in-flight drinking after brawls

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A red-faced man shouts and pulls the hair of a Russian airline steward, shaking him by the shoulders and shoving him. A passenger intervenes, but the troublemaker breaks his nose and leaves him bleeding.

Captured on a cellphone camera, the incident is among a string of alcohol-fuelled mid-air brawls that have shocked Russians and prompted lawmakers to debate ways to crack down on bad in-flight behaviour.

Lawmakers have called for harsher punishment, including jail time, while airlines are asking for the right to bar problem passengers.

Flagship carrier Aeroflot's general director said on Twitter that the airline has an in-house blacklist of 1,821 people -- but is powerless to stop selling them tickets.

"I'm sure that shared blacklists among all the airlines in Russia and big fines are the right way to go," Vitaly Savelyev wrote.

Aeroflot's largest competitor Transaero agreed that it should be up to the airlines to run the blacklists.

Cabin crews are currently unable to stop passengers from drinking to excess or to physically restrain them, said Igor Barinov, a lawmaker in the lower house of parliament.

Last month, he himself had to use "light physical force" on a passenger who pushed a steward and tried to enter the cockpit after drinking a bottle of spirits on an Aeroflot flight from Germany.

"I'm deeply convinced that those acts that are administrative offences on the ground in ordinary life should be criminal offences in the air," Barinov said.

Meanwhile the red-faced businessman who assaulted the steward and passenger on the Kogalymavia flight to Egypt last month failed to return on his booked flight.

On Friday, the federal Investigative Committee posted a photo of the man, Sergei Kabalov, asking him to come forward. It also upgraded his offence from battery to the much more serious attempted hijacking.

"Recently there's been an increase in the number of cases of aggressive behaviour by drunk passengers on planes and at airports," committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said.

"Air troublemakers create a real threat to the life and safety of passengers."

While mid-air brawlers already face up to 12 years in jail, in practice most get off much more lightly.

On Sunday, a UTair plane travelling from Moscow to Thailand landed early in Uzbekistan after a honeymooner started a fight that injured several passengers.

In an amateur video, passengers can be heard whooping and screaming as a woman tries to restrain the man.

Uzbekistan fined him around 398,000 soms ($200, 150 euros) and he was flown back to Moscow at his own expense, the Interfax news agency reported.

Russian police added they will question the man, who has said he's innocent.

"We need to implement criminal responsibility for hooliganism on transport," Pavel Krasheninnikov, head of the State Duma's legislative committee, told ITAR-TASS news agency.

"There shouldn't be any mitigating circumstances like he 'had a bit too much' or 'his head was spinning from the altitude'."

Prior attempts to change the situation have failed however, including a November bid by the transport ministry to ban taking duty-free alcohol on board.

That met with opposition from airlines and lawmakers.

"We are against a ban on selling alcohol in Duty Free, that won't solve the problem. It's not only drunks who go on rampages," Savelyev wrote on Twitter.

To some Russians, passing around a bottle as soon as the plane takes off is as much of a ritual as clapping the pilot's performance on landing.

"It always ends up with you opening up (a bottle of) something that in theory you shouldn't. We've all been there," wrote journalist Igor Maltsev in an opinion piece in the Izvestia daily.

An online poll by the Life News website found that 39 percent of respondents thought the best way to fight the problem was to keep drunk passengers from boarding.

Twenty-one percent said there should be a total ban on bringing alcohol on board.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130208/russia-debates-flight-drinking-after-brawls