Passenger Management

Unruly airline passengers: tackling aviation’s growing issue

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traffic control:
the third option?

Cases of disruptive behaviour on flights have risen sharply over the past few years, forcing national and international aviation to push for change. So what are different stakeholders doing to prevent this phenomenon from growing? Adele Berti finds out.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) defines passengers as ‘unruly’ and ‘disruptive’ if they “fail to respect the rules of conduct on board aircraft or to follow the instructions of crew members, thereby disturbing good order and discipline on board and compromising safety.”

Obstructive passengers are one of the issues that the aviation industry is still learning to cope with. On-board staff are faced with ever-increasing cases, which with many occurring during the summer holiday season and often making headlines around the world. 

To help airlines, this June IATA and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) published new legal guidance on how to manage unruly passengers on flights. Titled the ‘ICAO Manual on the Legal Aspects of Unruly and Disruptive Passengers’, the document was released only a few months after a number of intoxicated passengers on-board a flight between Dublin and Malta danced on their seats and abused the flight crew. Grabbing international attention, this incident forced international associations to take a stronger stance on tackling the issue. 

Written after the launch of the 2014 Montréal Protocol, which gives individual states around the world more powers to suppress the rise in disruptive passenger behaviour on-board flights, the manual provides them with legal guidance on how to prevent and address similar accidents in the future.

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Increase in flights affected by unruly behaviour

While unruly passengers are certainly not a new phenomenon, cases related to onboard accidents have undoubtedly been on the rise. “What happens generally in the street is now happening on-board aircraft,'' note members of ICAO’s Legal Affairs and External Relations Bureau, specifying that often these acts and offences directly threaten the safety of the aircraft. 
Figures collected by IATA from its airline members have revealed some 66,000 reports of disruptive behaviour were filed between 2007 and 2017; the data also showed how quickly this issue has escalated, revealing there was one unruly passenger for every 1,053 flights in 2017. 

Although there is still no clear directive on this matter, there could be a number of factors causing this upward trend. Examples are growth in passenger numbers worldwide, the rise of budget airlines and discounted alcohol prices at airports. 

In addition, according to a 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, even the presence of multiple seat classes on an aircraft can cause more disruptive behaviour as it reportedly highlights physical and situational inequality among passengers.

Eero Knuutila is Head of Service Development at Helsinki Airport.

Image courtesy: Helsinki Airport

There was one unruly passenger for every 1,053 flights in 2017

What’s been done so far?

While actions are limited when it comes to addressing class division on board, a lot has been done to prevent and manage unruly behaviour, both at national and international levels. Initiatives designed to stop this phenomenon were almost as frequent over summer 2019 as cases of disruptive passengers themselves. 

For example, in April this year, a 34% increase in the number of reported incidents within the European Union (EU) between 2017 and 2018 led the EU Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to roll out its #notonmyflight campaign in collaboration with a large host of industry players, ranging from airlines to retailer associations and airports.

“Every three hours the safety of a flight within the EU is threatened by passengers demonstrating unruly or disruptive behaviour,” the campaign said. “At least 70% of these incidents involve some form of aggression. Once a month the situation escalates to such a degree, forcing the plane to perform an emergency landing.”

In the UK, for example, the Airport Operators Association partnered with the UK Travel Retail Forum, IATA and Airlines UK to launch a media campaign against excessive drinking at airports. 

Implemented at over ten airports across the country in July this year, the ‘One Too Many’ campaign used posters, leaflets, as well as posts on social media posts to inform passengers of the consequences of unruly behaviour when flying.   

As part of the initiative, bars and restaurants in major British airports scrapped shots from their menus, while World Duty Free shops rolled out sealed bags to carry purchased alcohol.

Every three hours the safety of a flight within the EU is threatened by passengers demonstrating unruly or disruptive behaviour

Beyond regional boundaries and straight into governmental legislation

Months of awareness campaigns and targeted initiatives finally culminated with the publication of ICAO and IATA’s manual, which was officially introduced by ICAO Secretary General Dr Fang Liu and IATA Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac in June this year. 

As representatives from ICAO’s Legal Affairs and External Relations Bureau explain, it was written by a task force of states and international organisations: “The Task Force was established by the ICAO Secretary General following the adoption of the Montréal Protocol of 2014 by the International Conference on Air Law to Consider Amending the Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft.” 

Also known as the Tokyo Convention, the conference gave stronger powers to members of aircraft crew to prevent unruly behaviour from disrupting ordinary operations on board. 

Published as an update of the Tokyo Convention - and applying changes previously brought about by the Montréal Protocol - the new ICAO and IATA Manual is aimed at “improving the ability of states to expand jurisdiction over relevant offences and acts to include not only the state of registration, but also the state of landing and the state of the operator.” 

As the Legal Bureau explains, the manual also provides countries with legal guidance on how “to prevent, deter and address the occurrence of unruly and disruptive passenger incidents under their national legislation.” 

Although many governments around the world have already made considerable efforts towards adopting stricter, more unified legislation on unruly passengers as a consequence of the 2014 Montréal Protocol, a lot of work needs to be done - possibly with the help of this new manual - to achieve significant changes. 

As countries then move on towards a more unified approach against unruly passengers, ICAO stresses the need for a uniform safety and security reporting system, which would help create a solid database on different accidents and how they’re being addressed by different governments.

Eero Knuutila is Head of Service Development at Helsinki Airport.

Image courtesy: Helsinki Airport

ICAO stresses the need for a uniform safety and security reporting system

Facilitating a more effective response from cabin crews

With the Manual paving the way for stricter and more harmonised legislation on this issue, governments will have a stronger approach towards unruly passengers. 

Yet, while this will undoubtedly help manage and tackle this phenomenon in the future, dealing with it while in flight remains the hardest part of the job. 

Thanks to the Tokyo Convention, aircraft commanders, crew and (to some extent) passengers, are empowered to take the necessary measures to handle obstructive passengers. 

However, as outlined in IATA’s 2015 ‘Guidance on unruly passenger prevention and management’, these can vary depending on companies’ individual policies, which usually comply with local regulations set by the competent authority. 

So, while such policies are likely to be similar across different airlines, these are ultimately subject to individual governments and companies’ standards, highlighting a clear lack of uniformity, in the industry, of how the issue should be tackled first-hand. 

Nevertheless, IATA’s report includes a number of suggestions - such as ensuring continuous communication with the flight crew when addressing disruptive behaviour - that should always be considered in these situations. 

Finally, the document stresses the importance, for local authorities and their airlines, of putting in place a solid training system for all employees to ensure they are prepared to act in times of crisis.

IATA’s report [suggests] ensuring continuous communication with the flight crew when addressing disruptive behaviour

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