female passenger walking in the airport

Unruly passengers in the spotlight as airlines see rise in incidents


MADRID: Incidents involving unruly passengers on board aircraft rose in 2013. Preliminary data show that last year saw a spike in such events, with IATA member airlines reporting 8,217 incidents, up from 5,220 in 2012.

The vast majority of unruly passenger incidents involve some form of verbal confrontation. But a significant percentage also involve physical assaults and even sexual abuse. The FBI is researching the latter in the US “because they report that an average four times every month a passenger is accused of an act of physically touching up the person next to them on board, usually while the passenger is asleep,” aviation security expert Philip Baum said today in Madrid during a workshop at IATA’s first ever Cabin Operations Safety Conference.

Sexual assault in-flight “is a major problem that is now getting a lot of coverage in the press”, he said, later adding that he believes some airline adverts that are misleading about the product or which sexualize flight attendants don’t necessarily promote a respectful environment on board.

But what drives a passenger to become unruly and even violent? Not surprisingly, alcohol and/or drug abuse is a big factor, according to Baum. Some incidents are also traced to people suffering from personality disorders, mental illness or individuals under acute stress. “There is often a real human tragedy behind each of these incidents,” he noted.

Though not addressed by Baum in his presentation, some travelers have suggested on social media that tight seating configurations on aircraft also contribute to the rising tensions in-flight. Others believe flight attendants should be more proactive about not serving multiple alcoholic beverages to passengers. But flight attendants can also face abuse if they refuse to serve someone who is inebriated.

“[It’s] not a justification, but I can see [the] current state of travel (TSA, tiny seats, higher connecting flights) leading to additional traveler stress,” noted self described ‘aviation geek’ @jerrytroll on Twitter.

The ideal way of resolving any unruly passenger issue is by finding a way to communicate effectively, says IATA. “However, even experts most accomplished at diffusing tense situations need a backup plan.” That’s why it’s essential for cabin crew to be adequately trained in how to restrain unruly passengers, suggested Baum, who then proceeded to show the audience how flight attendants can work together and use relatively simple techniques to restrain even the most belligerent and abusive passenger with plastic hand cuffs.

You might be surprised to learn that not all carriers offer intense training in how to restrain unruly passengers. This is short sighted, according to Baum, who said he is genuinely concerned that a serious incident will someday end in the loss of an aircraft. “You only need one unruly passenger to get into the flight deck, and sorry, I know you have reinforced cockpit doors, but they do get in,” he said, highlighting the fact that pilots sometimes join crew in restraining unruly passengers.

Once an unruly passenger is restrained, the pilot decides whether or not to divert the flight. Nearly 40% of IATA member airlines report that they’ve had to divert a flight as a result of an unruly passenger event in the last 12 months. The cost to the airline of a diversion can be anywhere from $6,000 to $200,000, depending on equipment type, route, etc, noted Baum.

In a Twitter exchange about this topic, American Airlines pilot, Captain Chris Manno said the cost of diverting a flight is “the last thing on my mind when I’m eyeing the fuel and trying to decide when to pull the trigger and where to go”.

But Baum suggests that once an unruly passenger is restrained, a diversion is often unnecessary. “Most passengers would rather get to their destination on time and not go through the flight diversion simply because someone is swearing a lot,” he said, adding, however, that if the overall mood in the cabin becomes hostile or if the restrained person is injured, a diversion makes sense. “But far too many aircraft are diverting simply because they [crew] restrained somebody.”

Another consideration for airlines and crew is that in 2014 you can almost guarantee that “someone else on board that aircraft will be filming” the crew restraining an unruly passenger, “and that could well be used in a court of law afterwards. And that film footage could be going viral before the plane has even taken off.”