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Exploring the challenges of dealing with Airlines ''Unruly passangers'' - By Ahmed Haouaria

29 Août 2019

1- Definition and scope of the issue

According to IATA over 58,000 unruly passenger incidents were reported on aircraft in-flight between 2007 and 2016. Occurrences include violence against crew and passengers, harassment and refusal to follow crew safety instructions.

These cases range from refusal to comply with crew safety instructions to attacks on the flight deck.

In 2017, there was one unruly passenger incident for every 1,053 flights – higher than the 2016 incident rate of one incident every 1,424 flights. Overall, incidents reported were lower (8,731 during 2017 versus 9,837 during 2016) but the total number of reported incidents does not give a complete picture of the problem.

These figures are produced from the IATA STEADES (Safety Trend Evaluation, Analysis and Data Exchange) database but do not consider incidents on airlines which are not IATA members. Further, not all IATA members may choose to present inflight unruly passengers incident data for a particular year.

Annex 17 to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Chicago Convention (Convention on International Civil Aviation Security Safeguarding International Civil Aviation Against Acts of Unlawful Interference) defines a disruptive passenger as:  "A passenger who fails to respect the rules of conduct at an airport or on board an aircraft or to follow the instructions of the airport staff or crew members and thereby disturbs the good order and discipline at an airport or on board the aircraft."

A disruptive passenger is one who shows violence towards the aircraft crew, violates safety or security instructions and displays threatening or abusive behaviour during the flight. A disruptive passenger could be under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs or not.

Federal Aviation Administration FAA states the following with regard to the issue:

Interfering with the duties of a crewmember is considered federal law violation.

Federal Aviation Regulations 91.11, 121.580 and 135.120 state that "no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember's duties aboard an aircraft being operated."

The FAA's database contains only incidents reported by airlines to FAA. Incident reporting is at the discretion of the crewmember.

The consequences for passengers who engage in unruly behaviour can be considerable. They can be penalised by FAA or sued on criminal charges.

As part of the FAA's Reauthorization Bill (April 16, 2000) the FAA can propose up to $25,000 per violation for airline unruly passenger cases. Previously, the maximum civil penalty per violation was $1,100. Depending on each case one incident can result in various violations.


2- How unruly passengers are making flying offensive for crew and other passengers?

Unruly passengers are responsible for thousands of inflight inconveniences for passengers and crew resulting in flight delays, cancellations, and diversions, according to International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Causes of disruptive passengers are drugs consumption, along with anxiety, fear of flying and jet lag.

However, even sober passengers can become aggressive and disruptive.

Even when alcohol is freely served on board, there is a limit to how much is given to a passenger and this will be determined by the Cabin Crew who are trained to manage the alcohol service to avoid any deterioration in behaviour.

If a passenger became aggressive and refuse a safety related request, the cabin crew will try to handle the situation by offering a soft drink for the meantime, hoping that the passenger may fall asleep and avoid any situation degeneration.

In airlines today, Cabin crew are proactively trained to spot potential unruly passengers and take security training as well as conflict management, self-defence and passengers restraint training.

A disruptive passenger will first receive a ‘warning’ from the cabin crew and the refusal to comply may result in being restrained and arrested on landing.

Airlines can also black list disruptive passengers from travelling on their aircraft.


3- Unruly passengers: ICAO Threat levels

International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has defined four threat level hierarchy. Although all National Aviation Authorities do not follow these specific definitions, they provide guidance to airlines in determining the hypothetical consequence of an unruly passenger incident and in developing their own procedures on suitable response. The ICAO level of threat specifics are as follows:

Level 1 — Disruptive behaviour (verbal).  Includes verbal aggression or failure to comply with crew instructions;

Level 2 — Physically abusive behaviour. Includes physical aggression or lewdness against fellow passengers or crew and damage to the cabin;

Level 3 — Life-threatening behaviour. Includes threats to life, and presenting of weapons on-board;

Level 4 — Attempted or actual breach of the flight crew compartment. includes (intended or unintended flight deck breach), an act of sabotage or a credible threat of seizing the aircraft.

In 2017, 86% of incidents were Level 1 incidents, compared to 87% of 2016 incidents. Level 2 incidents also declined, from 12% in 2016 to 10% of all incidents in 2017. Level 3 incidents increased from 1% in 2016, to 3% in 2017, and Level 4 incidents more than doubled from 20 reported in 2016 to 50 incidents reported in 2017. Though Level 4 incidents are still extremely rare – at 1% of all reported incidents – the severity of the threat cannot be ignored.


4- What about Prevention?

While there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to preventing, and managing unruly passengers, identification and mitigation measures for the prevention of, or the control of, unruly passenger’s incidents must be taken at all stages of the flight, starting when the passenger first enters the terminal at the point of origin. To do this, Airlines and airports employees must be vigilant when interacting with passengers. The following measures are important but not exhaustive and are followed by most operators:

Check In: Check In staff should be encouraged to identify, and to report, any passenger whose behaviour would show signs of aggressiveness. For example, example, if a person appears to be in an intoxicated state, their actions should be reported to the airlines supervisors before they are processed for acceptance on-board. Where a possible problem is recognised, an assessment should be made by the person(s) nominated by the operator (Airline Duty Manager, Senior Cabin Crew Member and presented to the Captain. Based on collected elements a decision should be made to grant or to deny access on board.

Security Screening: Personnel at the security screening points can be trained to be part of the mitigation procedures. Some airlines even developed a Zero Tolerance Unruly Passenger policy after noticing an increase in the number of unruly passenger incidents at screening checkpoints.

Boarding Gate: A passenger's state of intoxication, anxiety or agitation may not be recognized until his or her arrival at the boarding gate. A passenger who has checked in early or who has been subject to a departure delay may well have ample time to consume excessive amounts of alcohol after the assessments that took place at check in or during security screening. Frustration levels will often rise with mechanical or weather related flight delays.

Prior to Departure: The final chance to leave a potential problem on the ground occurs just before the aircraft doors are closed. Observation of the boarding passengers by the Cabin Crew is an important tool for identifying potentially problematic behaviour. Cabin Crew should note passengers who are extremely nervous, intoxicated, loud or belligerent or who otherwise appear suspicious. The first step in intervention would be for a member of the Cabin Crew to attempt speaking with the passenger. Often, this contact is all that is required to defuse the behaviour and to gain the passenger’s cooperation. If it does not, then the situation should be handled as appropriate to the level of unruly behaviour. Unless the situation can be resolved to the satisfaction of the crew, if a passenger displays disruptive behaviour when in the aircraft is still on the ground, they, and their baggage, should be removed from the aircraft.

In Flight: Once the aircraft is in flight, the pilot are no longer able to leave the flight deck to assess or assist the Cabin Crew in the resolution of a passenger problem. Responsibility for determining the threat level of a specific situation and dealing with it appropriately now lies in the hands of the Cabin Crew. Cabin Crew training, in regard to unruly passengers, has become significantly more comprehensive in areas such as regulations, early detection, intervention and restraint. In all cases, it is critical that the senior Cabin Crew member and the Pilot In Command PIC be kept informed of any possible developing situation.

5- Dealing with unruly passengers: Crew training is key

The best way to handle violent passengers is to proactively prevent them from becoming unruly/aggressive, and much of the Airlines staff training focuses on this purpose. Training is mainly about “situational awareness”, recognizing potential problems before they get out of control. Crew should never forget that primary objective is the crew and passenger’s safety.

Any dangerous situation is considered a threat to safety, and takes immediate primacy over any other, non-threatening issue.

Crew are then taught skills to de-escalate potential threats.

Should a passenger become unruly, abusive or hostile, crew are also trained on how to handle the situation using the available resources on board including handcuffs, restraints and other tools. As part of Security practical training some self-defence techniques are also thought.

Basically, the training provides knowledge on how to detect, defuse and prevent critical situations, about the causes of various types of disruptive behaviour and ways to handle critical situations.

The training modules are designed to include duties of all operating concerned staff, with conflict and its outcome, ways/means to mitigate the situations that could happen due to potential causes of violence: long waiting lines, overbooked flight, delays & diversion and flight cancellation.

To neutralize explosive situations, airlines establish mechanisms to continuously observe and analyse incidents of disruptive behaviour in order to impart relevant training to frontline staff to help them manage rude and aggressive passengers and prevent such occurrences. Such cases and the way airlines handle them either positively or negatively could also be considered as case studies to other airlines.


IATA Guidance On Unruly Passenger Prevention and Management

The Airline Passenger: A Partner in the Safety Management System or an Obstacle to It?

Cabin Operations Safety: Best Practices Guide 3rd Edition by IATA, 2017




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