The problems caused by disruptive passengers on aircraft

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The topic of “air rage” seems to have found its way back on to the media agenda, in the past few weeks we have seen, amongst others, stories of Ryanair banning duty free alcohol on their flights from Prestwick to Ibiza, Easyjet having to remove drunk passengers from a flight from Bristol to Mallorca and banning a passenger for life for exposing himself on a flight from East Midlands to Mallorca.


Whilst all these flights have a common theme, in that they were operating to the Balearic Islands, that is probably no more than coincidence, and hides what appears to be a bigger concern about drunken passengers on aircraft.


The aviation industry has for many years had an issue about passengers drinking too much and then misbehaving on aircraft. According to that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, the first recorded case of air rage was recorded in 1947 on a flight from Havana to Miami, when a drunk man assaulted another passenger and bit a flight attendant. Since then, there have been many high profile incidents, involving celebrities as well as ordinary passengers. Whilst alcohol is not the only cause of passengers misbehaving on aircraft, it is certainly a very common feature.


I was directly involved in one well reported incident (which incidentally became a question on the 1990’s edition of Trivial Pursuits) when an Airtours International flight from Gatwick to Montego Bay, Jamaica was forced to divert into Norfolk, Virginia to offload a group of 12 passengers who had been drink and abusive on the flight. Following their return to the UK, some of that group were prosecuted, and convicted for endangering the safety of the aircraft. However, it is still relatively unusual for criminal action to be taken against offenders, despite the obvious risk created by passengers misbehaving on aircraft.


The CAA receive an annual Freedom of Information Act request to report on the numbers of incidents of misbehaving passengers, and their most recent release was in February 2014, relating to the 2013 calendar year. In that year, there were 139 reported incidents of disruptive passengers onboard UK registered aircraft. That number will hide the real total, as there will be many incidents dealt with by airlines which do not end up being reported. It is however clear that the aviation industry has a continuing problem with this issue, and more needs to be done to address the problem.


So why does it happen, and can more be done to prevent these types of problem?


There is no doubt that many people find flying stressful, and this has only become worse in recent years. The whole of passing through airports is getting harder and harder, with added security, the ever present fear of terrorist action – however statistically unlikely that may be, and the fact that for some people, travelling at 30,000 in a thin metal tube is an unnatural, and therefore uncomfortable experience.  That is then coupled with the physiological aspects of flying – cabins are  pressurised to replicate the air pressure at around 6,00 to 8,000 feet, where the air is much thinner than most of us are used to. As a result, alcohol in particular gets absorbed into the blood much more swiftly at that lower pressure, making people feel more intoxicated.


We all react differently to stress, and in some cases, the response comes out as aggression or misbehaviour – and in the most extreme cases, this can result in violence towards fellow passengers or cabin crew.


Clearly, this is a problem, in that at 30,000 feet, there is a limited amount that can be done to control unruly flyers, and is also a problem even when the aircraft is on the ground, in the sense that the last thing that anyone wants to add to their stress is to have another passenger on their flight starting a fight at 30,000 feet. Hence the reason for strict laws relating to behaviour on aircraft. Indeed, IATA have produced a 50 page manual for airlines to help them know how to address the problems created. The legal framework appears in the Tokyo Convention of 1963, which makes it unlawful to commit “acts which, whether or not they are offences [against the penal law of a State], may or do jeopardize the safety of the aircraft or of persons or property therein or which jeopardize good order and discipline on board.” That has been implemented into national laws, and in the UK, is addressed in the Air Navigation Order 2009.


This is not necessarily an easy problem to address. Whilst alcohol is a contributory cause, it is by no means the only one. The more radical suggestions, such as banning the sale of alcohol on board aircraft don’t really help, in that in many cases, the offending passengers have drunk too much prior to boarding their flight. Equally, banning the sale of alcohol at airports, whether in bars or from duty free outlets wouldn’t entirely address the problem, although it might help a little – and is it really a proportionate step to say to all air passengers that they shouldn’t be allowed to consume alcohol because a few passengers may misbehave?


It seems to me that to address this topic properly, there needs to be combined approach by all players in the industry. This has to start with the police and prosecuting authorities. We all know that budgets of all governmental functions are under pressure, but the police need to be seen to be taking a strong hand with offenders, particularly the worst ones.


Both airports and airlines also need to consider carefully their alcohol sales policies. If I went to a pub in Manchester on a Saturday night and was clearly drunk, the staff in that pub should not serve me alcohol, at the risk of losing their licence. Airport bars should adopt a similarly strict, or probably even stricter approach, knowing that all their customers will be boarding a flight when they have finished drinking.


As a related issue, there remains an issue with passengers buying bottles in duty free and using that alcohol on flights. All airlines ban this, but how often do you see the surreptitious pouring of spirits into soft drink glasses? The smaller the bottle, the easier it is to sneak under the radar, so does it make sense to ban the sale of miniature and quarter bottles of spirits in airport duty free shops?


Banning misbehaving passengers is the ultimate sanction, but one that is incredibly difficult to enforce. Unless the passenger has booked direct, and the airline has their home address details, they could easily book again and not be spotted. However, authorities around the world are now requiring airlines to produce information before flight on their passengers. If details of banned passengers were supplied by the airlines to those authorities, it should be possible to identify them before travel, and therefore prevent them flying. Let’s face it, the authorities already have “Watch lists” of potential terrorists, so it doesn’t take much to add on a list of unruly passengers. This is an area where the civil liberties of the many – the ability to fly without threat to their wellbeing has to outweigh the data protection downsides, but we will need to work hard to persuade some that this is the case.


As a related point, it would probably help airlines if they were able to share lists of those passengers they have banned – it might then be possible to prevent some of those passengers booking in the first place.  To do this, the airlines would need to be certain that they faced no threat of breaching data protection legislation.


None of these steps will necessarily prevent the problem entirely, but if air passengers could see clearly that strong action was being taken against offenders, it would both give more comfort to the vast majority of air travellers as well as acting as some sort of deterrent to a number of onboard troublemakers.


I am not holding my breath, but it’s in all our interests to call for these steps to be implemented.