Air Rage: What You Need to Know

Rage in the Air

People boarding a plane

TonyTheTigersSon / Twenty20

It’s not just your imagination -- air rage incidents were on the rise in 2015, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade group that represents the world’s airlines. Nearly 11,000 unruly passenger incidents were reported to IATA by airlines worldwide, which equals one incident for every 1,205 flights, an increase from the 9,316 incidents reported in 2014 (or one incident for every 1,282 flights).

Incidents in 2015 that made the news included:

  • Two passengers on a United Airlines flight subdued a passenger trying to get to the cockpit;
  • An American Airlines flight from Miami to Chicago was diverted to Indianapolis after a woman allegedly kissed, then punched a flight attendant;
  • A Southwest Airlines had to make an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport after a dispute over a reclining seat; and
  • A passenger on a British Airways flight from London to Boston had to be restrained as she tried to enter the cockpit.

Between 2007 and 2015, IATA reported there were nearly 50,000 reported cases of unruly passenger incidents on board aircraft in flight, including violence against crew and other passengers, harassment and failure to follow safety instructions.

Most of the incidents verbal abuse, failure to follow lawful crew instructions and other forms of anti-social behavior. Eleven percent of unruly passenger reports were about physical aggression toward passengers or crew or damage to the aircraft. Twenty-three percent of reports identified alcohol or drug intoxication as a factor in 23 percent of cases, though in the vast majority of instances these were consumed prior to boarding or from a personal supply without knowledge of the crew.

“Unruly and disruptive behavior is simply not acceptable. The anti-social behavior of a tiny minority of customers can have unpleasant consequences for the safety and comfort of all on board. The increase in reported incidents tells us that more effective deterrents are needed. Airlines and airports are guided by core principles developed in 2014 to help prevent and manage such incidents. But we cannot do it alone. That’s why we are encouraging more governments to ratify the Montreal Protocol 2014,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO in a statement.

The Montreal Protocol 2014 was written to close gaps in the international legal framework dealing with unruly passengers. The agreed changes give greater clarity to the definition of unruly behavior, including the threat of or actual physical assault, or refusal to follow safety-related instructions. There are also new provisions to deal with the recovery of significant costs arising from unruly behavior.

As part of that effort, the airlines created a balanced, multi-stakeholder strategy for tackling unruly behavior, based on increasing international deterrents and creating more effective prevention and management of incidents. So far, only six countries have ratified the protocol, but 22 total need to sign it to before it can be enforced.

Some countries have focused on the role of alcohol as a trigger for disruptive behavior. Airlines already have strong guidelines and crew training on the responsible provision of alcohol, and IATA is supporting initiatives, such as the code of practice pioneered in the UK, which includes a focus on prevention of intoxication and excessive drinking prior to boarding.

Staff in airport bars and duty-free shops must be trained to serve alcohol responsibly to avoid offers that encourage binge drinking. Evidence from a program initiated by Monarch Airlines at London’s Gatwick Airport shows that instances of disruptive behavior can be cut in half with this proactive approach before passengers’ board.

Safety in the air begins on the ground, and IATA encourages airlines to keep a passenger displaying unruly behavior on the ground and off the aircraft, it encourages creating guidelines that can be applied from the arrival at the airport all the way to the passenger cabin.

Unruly passenger incidents occur in every cabin class, and if escalated, can lead to costly diversions and safety risks. The protocol is good news for everyone who flies – passengers and crew alike, said IATA. The changes, along with the measures already being taken by airlines, will provide an effective deterrent for unacceptable behavior on board aircraft.

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