A disruptive passenger is one who disobeys safety or security instructions and displays threatening or abusive behavior. Often, they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It is illegal for an intoxicated person to board a flight, get drunk or take drugs, or to drink alcohol that has not been bought or given out on the aircraft. Other causes of passengers being disruptive include anxiety, jet lag, prescription drugs, and fear of flying. Unfortunately, incidents involving disruptive passengers are becoming more common, as are the delays and disruptions they cause.
on the ground
With this becoming an increasing problem, airline staff are being encouraged to be extra vigilant at the airport, to spot any potential passenger problem through the various stages of the airport – at check-in, at security, and at the boarding gate. If a passenger is very drunk prior to the flight, they can be denied boarding. The airline staff should use teamwork and communication to remain vigilant, mitigate risk and try and stop a problem before it starts.
Once onboard the aircraft, the flight attendants monitor the passengers during boarding for any signs of aggression or threatening behavior. They are on the lookout for anything suspicious or unusual because, at this stage, if a passenger becomes unruly they can be offloaded and handed over to security. Once the aircraft is in flight, things get more complicated.
You never know when a passenger may suddenly become an unruly one. Photo: Getty Images
If a passenger is suspected of becoming disruptive, the flight attendants can limit alcohol given to or bought by the passenger. If the passenger becomes aggressive, the flight attendant will try and defuse the situation by talking to the passenger, offering a soft drink in the meantime, and encouraging cooperation. Flight attendants are trained in being able to spot potentially disruptive passengers and in security, conflict management, self-defense, and restraint.
If the situation worsens, a flight attendant has to intervene and give a warning to the passenger. At the same time, another flight attendant will be notifying the senior crew member of the situation, who then communicates what is happening to the flight deck – at this time, the safety of the aircraft, crew and passengers may be jeopardized. The level of threat needs to be determined, and diverting the aircraft to the nearest airport has to be considered. If the passenger fails to comply with the warning and remains aggressive, then restraint can be used, and they will be arrested on landing.
The aviation authorities and the airlines have become much less tolerant of unruly passengers in recent times. The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) brought in a zero-tolerance policy in January 2021.
The disruptive passenger may receive a fine, a prison sentence, or both. They will also have to cover the cost of the aircraft diversion, which could be up to $80,000. Most airlines will ban the passenger from using the airline for a fixed time or for life. In recent times, ends of $75,000 and $82,000 have not been uncommon.
Flight attendants detect any potential issues whilst working. Photo: Eurowings
Of course, not all ‘disruptive events’ end so severely. On board an aircraft, sometimes there are smaller issues for the crew to resolve that involve ‘individuals in the vicinity’. This can be a loud passenger or loud group, a ‘seat-kicker’, crying babies, or a passenger putting their seat in full recline. All these can be cause for another passenger to reach for the call bell.
A flight attendant can speak to the loud passenger/s calmly and encourage them to be quieter. A seat kicker can be given some toys or coloring books by the crew to distract them to otherwise occupy themselves. Heating up a baby’s bottle and supplying baby food may help quell its crying temporarily, or the crew (if inclined) may hold the baby temporarily to take pressure off the frazzled parents. During a meal service, the flight attendant can politely encourage anyone with a seat back reclined to put their seat upright so that the passenger behind can eat in comfort.
Soft skills, detecting issues before they start, and defusing problems are the answers.