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Unruly passengers – Research and Reality?

The topic of the post last week here at the blog of Lund University School of Aviation was unruly passengers and that got a lot of attention and interest. That post can be found here – link.

Given this attention and that this is an important topic for cabin crew and everyone who interacts with passengers in the aviation industry, a return to the topic seemed reasonable. This time I decided to do a bit of a literature search to see what there is in regards to published research on the topic. While the experiences of crew, staff and airlines that suffer the consequences of the unruly behaviour of passengers should be in focus, as well as how to manage such situations, the question was to what extent this has been a focus for research.

A remarkable amount of the limited research literature on this topic is about the legal aspects of it. The relevance, limits and need to update the 1963 Tokyo Convention, the Montreal Protocol etc. has been published in journals of aviation law and other journals focused more broadly on aviation. These articles highlight the problems with a lack of shared and coherent descriptions of offenses to be used in domestic legal systems, the absence of a definition of good order and discipline on an aircraft and the thorny issues of jurisdiction (Vecchio, 2017).

This links to the frustrating experiences of crew and staff of too often feeling unsupported by the law and law enforcement when it comes to unruly passengers. In fact some countries may not in their legal system have appropriate laws that can be applied to situations with unruly passenger behaviour. The literature points to many shortcomings that should be addressed to protect crew, staff and operations from unruly passengers. However, it is not difficult to see that agreeing and implementing such legal structures probably is as big a challenge as any other agreement between countries in regards to legal matters. Sadly, the most researched area of the tools of unruly passengers – legal aspects – seem to be one where limited progress has been made.

More interesting than an international legal perspective is the day-to-day perspective of how unruly passengers affect crew and staff. This has not been given even less attention in research but a review of this was published last year (McLinton et. al. 2020). This research looked for research articles on the topic between 1985 and 2020 and found 19 that met the criteria of being focused on air rage and unruly passengers and were published in peer-review journals. This comes across as an abysmal number for a topic that is of such importance to the crew and staff who have to manage such situations. It is unfortunately consistent with the limited research focused on other areas of cabin crew and ground staff work in the aviation industry. The review article is however useful and summarises the 19 articles in four main areas, in a way that is readable and it is worth a read beyond the short summary presented here.

1. Frequency and characteristics of DABP (Disruptive Airline Passenger Behaviour)
The problem of underreporting is brought up here, making any reported number on DABP dubious. With this in mind, the trend of an increasing number of events was recorded from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s (except in one study). After this the number of events seem to have stabilised. Whether this represents a real stabilising trend, perhaps due to actions taken in response to the increasing number of events, or underreporting is difficult to assess. There is however some reports about an increasing seriousness to events after the mid-2000s, but overall the assessment is that the proportion of serious events have been stable in recent years.

2. Frequency of type 2 events – physical abuse
As per IATA data from 2016 12% of reported events were at Level 2, i.e. physical abuse. Like for the frequency and characteristics of DAPB, numbers vary widely between studies and especially between studies in different countries. Regardless of the details in different studies, the numbers show that it is likely that most crew and staff working with airline passengers for a longer time will have experienced events of physical and sexual abuse. Compared to other female dominated professions (nursing, teaching etc.) female cabin crew are at higher risk for sexual abuse. It should also be noted that in one study the frequency of sexual abuse from superiors and co-workers was as only slight lower than that from passengers. This indicates that DAPB may be part of a broader workplace problem. Overall, the little research there is on this shows that much more is needed.

3. Consequences of DAPB for crew well-being and training
The article writes quite a lot about this, but again from a limited amount of research. As expected, there are many negative consequences for those who experience DAPB, such as dread of similar events happening again, doubts about staying in the profession, emotional exhaustion, fatigue, aggression and social anxiety, lower self-esteem and effects on physical health. It is concluded that this area and under-researched, with almost no research on absenteeism and staff turnover due to DAPB.
When it comes to training only a handful of studies are available. The effectiveness of training is difficult to measure or assess given that DAPB events are infrequent and unpredictable in nature, i.e. relating training to actual events to measure effectiveness remains a challenge. There seems to be no doubt that more training, including more scenarios and role-playing could be helpful but more research is needed to validate the effectiveness of training.

4. Factors explaining DAPB
In general the most common factors explaining DAPB are alcohol/medications and illegal smoking, medications and drugs and poor customer service. Different studies put alcohol as the reason for DAPB at 40-80%. IATA reports 31% related to alcohol/intoxication and 26% for non-compliance with smoking regulations. In regards to medications and drugs there is not data, only case studies. Overall such anecdotal evidence points to that there is a higher risk of abuse with medicated passengers. When it comes to customer service, better service offerings are linked to a lower risk of DAPB. While poor customer service may not directly cause DAPB it makes other passengers more supportive of unruly behaviour. Also, airport stressors (e.g. waiting, queuing, crowds, security controls) and aircraft stressors (e.g. limited space, noise, temperature) have been linked to DAPB. Finally, passenger characteristics and “travel mores” (customs and behaviours) have also been linked to DAPB, especially the increase of inexperienced passengers and a greater sense of entitlement among passengers.

Overall, the review of literature shows that there is a need for more research in the field of unruly passengers, on practically all of the aspects linked to it. Still, the limited research that is available could also be more closely reviewed by airlines and useful parts extracted for implementation and used in training.

Given the attention this topic got from readers it would be interesting to receive stories direct from those who experienced DAPB events. They could then be put together in a follow up post to compare the research with reality. If anyone wants to contribute with a story, please send it to: nicklas.dahlstrom@tfhs.lu.se

McLinton, S. S., Drury, D., Masocha, S., Savelsberg, H. & Lushington, K. (2020). “Air Rage”: A Systematic Review of Research on Disruptive Airline Passenger Behaviour 1985-2020. Journal of Airline and Airport Management, 10(1), 31-49.
Vecchio, V. (2017). Securing the Skies from Unruly Passengers: The Montreal Protocol Doesn’t Fly Far Enough. Issues in Aviation Law and Policy, 17(2), 257-276.

1 Comment

  1. One thing comes to my mind.

    Historically, aviation has been leaning on and inspired by the marine actvities. It should be the case also with unruly passengers. Certainly, ships, their staff and ship captains have dealt with very similar problems – before aviation and in larger numbers. The situation is similar – you can’t call on the authorities (police) until you are in the next harbour/have landed.

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