Most of us who get onto a flight simply want to get to our destination in a way that is as pleasant as possible (or at least not too unpleasant). However, at times there are passengers who cause unpleasant situations, conflicts or even operational disruptions and diversions. The label “unruly passenger” is used for these passengers and the situations they cause. The problem with unruly passengers is one that has gained increasing attention for some time in the aviation industry, but still has remained a growing problem. The latest development on this is that American Airlines and Southwest have recently decided to ban alcohol on their flights (link to article below). This after a series of incidents, with the most serious one was one where a woman hit a cabin crew so that two of her teeth were knocked out (link).
ICAO Annex 17 defines what an unruly passenger is (link) and in summary it is a passenger that does not follow rules or instructions and “disturbs good order and discipline”. In 2019 ICAO released Doc 10117 – Manual on the Legal Aspects of Unruly and Disruptive Passengers, with guidance on how to handle this type of difficult situations. The industry organisation IATA has also focused on this issue and reports that there is about one unruly passenger incident per 1000 flights (link). IATA has also produced a useful summary on the issue (link).
IATA has also developed a list of “unruly behaviours”, which includes physical and verbal confrontations, making threats, non-compliance with instructions and other behaviour that easily falls in the category of “I know it when I see it” when it comes to being unruly (link). When it comes to causes, alcohol has already been mentioned, and to that can be added other forms of drug use or abuse. To this can be added mental health issues, anxiety, fatigue and all kinds of frustrations that a passenger can experience when flying (limited personal space, queues, delays etc.).
The situation in Europe has gained attention from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which launched a campaign named “#notonmyflight” to promote zero tolerance against unruly passengers (link). In a document developed for the UK Government, “International comparison of disruptive passenger prevalence” some perspective on the issue is provided. This shows a marked increase in the number of cases from 2007 to 2016, with the majority of events (98%) was verbally abusive behaviour. Comparable data from different countries is scarce, but worth noting is how rare it seems to be that unruly behaviour has any consequences – only in one of six cases in the US resulted in fines between 2009 and 2013. This aligns with cabin crew perception of not feeling supported to the full extent that they confidently can manage escalating situations with unruly passengers. Even the different options for consequences vary between countries. Among the four options of fines, nofly lists, detention, imprisonment, few are coherently implemented and applied between or even within countries.
What is not emphasised enough in the formal definitions, guidance and numbers is the incredibly difficult situation for cabin crew. They are expected to provide the best possible service, without implying that passengers can get more than they paid for (which would create more expectations and more trouble). They are supposed to avoid and manage conflicts with people from all walks of life, some of which may carry with them frustrations that has nothing to do with the flight but where the conditions of being a passenger may trigger reactions unlikley to happen elsewhere. While many service professions may share these challenges, there are few where the combination of expected service and limited options in terms of action conspire to make for such a difficult situation. It is one thing to ask someone to leave a store or club, or even to throw someone out, but on an aircraft this is a very different option.
There is much more to explore, understand and write about this topic, especially the psychology and sociology of unruly behaviour on flights. However, for now it can be concluded that the issue of unruly passengers is one that has been growing and can be expected to continue to do so in a growing industry, especially as the gap between expected and experienced service probably will remain and grow due to the competition in the industry. It is also a topic that is of importance for everyone that gets in contact with the aviation industry since we all are passengers at some point and unruly behaviour will affect us all sooner or later.