Flight attendants -- once able to comfort nervous passengers with a smile and a drink -- say they are now catching flak from a new and angry breed of air travelers. The anger, they say, has been building for years. It shows itself in verbal abuse, interference with flight attendants' duties and outright physical attacks.

Such is the growing concern about the abuse that one union is taking assault cases to court, seeking civil penalties against passengers who attack flight attendants.

"Why should they get beat up?" asks attorney Evans North. "Look, the price of a ticket doesn't give anybody the license to abuse a flight attendant's body."

For example:

Vacationers on a flight to Honolulu watched in dismay as a passenger choked a male flight attendant. The incident occurred after the passenger forcefully pinned a female flight attendance against the cabin wall while attempting to kiss her and the male attendant came to her aid.

On a Braniff International Airways trans-Atlantic flight on June 25, an intoxicated passenger grabbed a flight attendant. She broke away from his grasp. When the flight landed in England, the man was arrested by police and fined $100 for being intoxicated on an aircraft.

On a Eastern Airlines flight from Atlanta to Hartford, Conn., a passenger became upset with the flight attendant and threw a cup of hot tea on her. She suffered first-degree burns on her stomach.

On an American Airlines flight between Boston and Detroit, a well-known baseball player became uncontrollable. He intimidated several flight attendants and disrupted the flight. He was fined $500 by the Federal Aviation Administration.

On a flight between Brazil and New York in 1978, a woman became intoxicated and was refused alcoholic beverages. She began swearing at flight attendants and chasing them up and down the aisle, spitting in their faces and calling them "pigs." She calmed down only after the copilot threatened to handcuff her to the seat.

These are a few of the accounts in reports being received by the Federal Aviation Administration, flight attendant unions and attorneys representing cabin crew members.

"It isn't funny," said one San Diego-based flight attendant who asked not to be identified. "It used to be that passengers were demanding; now they are getting mean."

An employe of the Air Transport Association, the lobbying arm for the airline industry, downplayed the extent of abuse directed at flight attendants. The spokesman, who asked not to be quoted by name, said the complaints of abuse may be the flight attendants' way of protesting their increased workload.

Airline spokesmen were reluctant to comment, saying they did not have statistics that showed an increase in abuse.

Many flight attendants believe they are becoming the targets of the anger that has been spawned in long airport lines and nurtured in crowded jetliners. And alcohol, they say, plays a big part in the growing violence.

"We know people are going to mouth off to flight attendants. That is part of the job and they are trained to handle it," said attorney North, whose Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Speiser, Krause and Mardole is handling more than two dozen assault cases for flight attendants.

"And the sad thing is that passengers are not just putting their hands on flight attendants, they're terrorizing them," he said.

FAA statistics covering the last five years seem to bear out the growing anxieties of flight attendants.

The enforcement actions and civil penalties against airlines, crew members, passengers and shippers are sprinkled with accounts of intoxicated passengers interfering with flight attendants, assaults and even an account of indecent exposure.

Jerry Lavey, an FAA spokesman in Washington, said there were 75 violations of laws against interfering with crew members last year, some of which included assault. The maximum fine for such violations is $1,000.

"As a general trend, the amount of abuse from passengers has really increased," said Richard Wagner, who deals with health and safety issues for the 7,000-member Independent Federation of Flight Attendants. The union represents flight attendants working for Trans World Airlines.

Wagner said the probable causes of the increased violence are lower fares and a new class of airline passengers, one not aware of the "rights and wrongs" of air travel. He blames the FAA for allowing the abuses to continue on jetliners.

"The FAA has to stop treating flight attendants as second-class citizens," he said. "You can rest assured that if a passenger assaulted a pilot he would be taken care of."

Another common complaint among flight attendants is what they say is the airline companies' unofficial policy of allowing intoxicated passengers aboard flights, a violation of FAA rules.

"I think they should be a lot stricter on not letting intoxicated passengers on board," said Tracy Chambers, the president of the association that represents flight attendants working for the San Diego-based Pacific Southwest Airlines.

In handling the civil cases against passengers who assault flight attendants, North said, he will ask a minimum of $10,000 for punitive damages and additional damages for physical injuries and loss of wages.

"This is quite a bit more than the minimum fine imposed by the FAA," North said. "This will make passengers think twice before punching a flight attendant."

The 22,000-member Association of Flight Attendants hired Speiser, Krause and Madole this year when it became apparent that the number of assaults was increasing and little was being done about them. North has discovered that:

There appear to be as many assaults involving sober passengers as drunk ones.

Just as many female passengers assault flight attendants as do male passengers.

Well-known athletes from major professional teams are notorious for their conduct on jetliners, including assault and battery on their cabin attendants.

One suggestion to curb some of the violence is to stop serving alcohol on flights.

"Unless you can put them in some compartment where the drunks can beat up on the drunks and not interfere with everyone else, it's better not to have it," said North.

A flight attendant can refuse to serve alcohol to a drunken passenger, but as has happened in the past, said North, a flight attendant could face disciplinary action from the company for not serving the passenger.