The United States saw its peak of unruly passenger incidents in 2021, with 720 incidents reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in March 2021 alone. Since then, the FAA has implemented a well-publicized zero tolerance policy which has helped to reduce the number of unruly passenger incidents by more than 80 percent.
The global trend however is quite different. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently released a new analysis showing that reported unruly passenger incidents increased in 2022 compared to 2021.
The latest figures show that there was one unruly incident reported for every 568 flights globally in 2022, up from one per 835 flights in 2021. Unruly passenger incidents may compromise flight safety, cause significant delays and operational disruption, and adversely impact the travel experience and work environment for passengers and crew. The most common categorizations of incidents globally in 2022 were non-compliance, verbal abuse and intoxication. Physical abuse incidents remain very rare, but these had an alarming increase of 61% over 2021, occurring once every 17,200 flights.
Earlier this month, two men were arrested in St Lucia when their British Airways flight from London, U.K. landed. Airline crew intervened when one of the men is said to have smashed a glass bottle and then stabbed another man with the broken shards.
Also this July, a flight due to depart Cardiff Airport, U.K. was delayed for three hours after a group of men refused to get off the plane. The group bound for Bulgaria became verbally abusive to airline crew after they were told they couldn’t drink alcohol while on board the flight. After security were called some of the group agreed to leave the aircraft but others turned aggressive, directing their anger at the security officers and making remarks regarding gun use.
As former Federal Security Director at Los Angeles International Airport and now Vice President of K2 Security Screening Group, Keith Jeffries, told us, alcohol is too often at the root of unruly passenger incidents.
“There has been an ongoing debate for many years on what should and shouldn’t be prohibited on flights,” Jeffries said. “Due to the recent British Airways flight that involved a broken bottle, some argue that glass poses significant risks and should be banned. That quite frankly is not the answer. Someone with bad intentions can make a weapon out of almost anything. Incidents involving broken bottles on an aircraft are rare. One event should not dictate policy changes, however, instead of a ban on glass containers, I would recommend that airlines consider a ban on alcohol. It continues to be the root of most of the unruly passenger incidents on aircraft.”
Jeffries said unruly passenger incidents continue to be a big concern within the aviation industry, both in the U.S. and globally. “There are differences in trends in this area between the U.S. and foreign countries. Cultural factors, alcohol regulations onboard flights, and legal ramifications for disruptive air travelers all contribute to the differences.”
IATA is calling for more states to take the necessary authority to prosecute passengers under Montreal Protocol 2014 (MP14). MP14 enables countries other than the country of registration to exercise jurisdiction over unruly passengers. This resolves an existing gap in international aviation law that often results in those accused of unruly behavior not being prosecuted for their misbehavior. In a survey, 60% of International Air Transport Association (IATA) member airlines cited lack of jurisdiction as a key factor for why prosecutions do not proceed.
Globally, and nationally, authorities should take note of the FAA’s successful zero tolerance campaign and associated penalties as, while not a panacea for all incidents, it has nevertheless proven to be a recipe for success, boosted by support from other federal agencies.
In addition to the FAA’s crackdown on unruly passengers within the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also investigates violence against persons and property at international airports where the victim or offender is a United States national or if the offender is located within the U.S. Interfering with airport security screening personnel ahead of a flight, including airport employees or airline employees working at the gate, also falls under the FBI’s investigative responsibility, as do bomb threats whether they are made on the ground or in-flight.
And Jeffries explained how Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers also play a vital role in ensuring the safety of airline passengers. “Dealing with unruly passengers is one of the many challenging aspects of their job. Teamwork is crucial when dealing with them. TSA Officers are trained to remain composed in stressful situations, using effective communication skills to de-escalate an incident involving a ‘frustrated’ passenger. They understand that some air travelers will not comply with security procedures due to fear or frustration. In these cases, TSA agents are tasked with employing patience and empathy while explaining the importance of following security protocols for everyone’s safety. If the de-escalation techniques fail, law enforcement will be called in to assist.”
Jeffries added that the TSA does not make the determination if a passenger can board an aircraft for being unruly, the air carrier does. “However, TSA can deny a passenger entry at a checkpoint until the screening process is completed,” he said. “In these cases, TSA has the authority to levy civil penalties when there is an interruption to the screening process. Furthermore, if there are threats to TSA staff, denial and/or civil penalties may be sanctioned.”
Despite the substantial reduction in incidents in the U.S., federal, airline and airport authorities cannot rest on their laurels. This summer for example has seen several examples of unruly and criminal behavior on board commercial flights.
In June, a man was charged with causing a disturbance on an Alaska Airline flight from Minneapolis to Anchorage. During the disturbance, the man became unresponsive due to an alleged drug overdose. Flight crew members and two passengers, who are medical professionals, tried to give Burch a dose of Narcan, but he started violently resisting and pushing people back, eventually grabbing a female flight attendant near her throat.
In July, a passenger was charged with abusive sexual contact on board an aircraft. The suspect was seated next to the 15-year-old victim and pretended to be sleeping while he assaulted her. He was arrested on arrival at Seattle Tacoma International Airport.
Also in July, a 41-year-old Chief Warrant Officer in the Army, currently stationed in Alaska, was indicted for two counts of abusive sexual contact while on board an aircraft. Abusive sexual contact on an aircraft is punishable by up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
It is vital that the FAA continues to maintain its zero tolerance approach to unruly passengers if the U.S. is to avoid a resurgence of incidents. Internationally, trends indicate an urgent need for much tougher action on passengers who behave dangerously on board commercial flights, and the global aviation community could do worse than to look to the FAA for lessons learned.