Rude Awakening

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As if air travel is not taxing enough, airline personnel must also train to deal with disruptive passengers. Robert W. Moorman explores this escalating problem.

Disorderly. Boisterous. Disruptive. Rowdy. Disobedient. Rude. Call them what you will. Unruly airline passengers are becoming a major problem for airline cabin crews, pilots and ground personnel.

In 2017, airlines reported one unruly passenger incident for every 1,053 flights (compared with one in 1,424 the year before) according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). That translates to 40-50,000 unruly behavior incidents a year. In the European Union, there was a 34% increase in incidents between April 2017 and 2018, one incident “every three hours,” according to EASA. And these numbers may understate the full extent of the problem because they are based on voluntary reports submitted by airlines.

Excessive use of alcohol and drugs are given as the main reasons for unruly behavior, which is oftentimes aggressive, but there are other factors. Fear of flying and cramming passengers in narrow seats with little maneuverability adds to passenger stress levels, as do add-on costs (baggage, food service) and the logistics of airline travel, such as security and flight delays.

“The three most reported areas, both on ground and onboard, are alcohol, expectations and not following safety rules,” said Leif Svensson, IATA Head of Corporate Security and Emergency Response. The regulatory authorities and airports are not “doing enough” to help airlines reduce alcohol consumption, he added.

IATA classifies behaviors in four categories:

  • Level 1 is aggression and noncompliance with safety requirements;
  • Level 2, physical actions, such as kicking, punching, obscene or physical contact and damage to aircraft fixtures;
  • Level 3, life threatening behavior, including a display of a weapon; and
  • Level 4, attempted or actual breach of flight deck security, sabotage and credible threat of seizure of the aircraft.

86% of the incidents were classified as Level 1 in 2017, a 1% improvement over 2016.

British Airways is a client of the Quik-Tie Soft Wrist Restraint for physically controlling aggressive individuals while reducing the potential risk of injury. Image credit: Total Resolve Training.

Ban Adult Beverages Onboard?

Eliminating the sale of alcohol would reduce the problem appreciably, safety experts believe. But airlines seem to prefer the policy of refusing to allow inebriated passengers to board flights and refuse to sell alcoholic beverages to those passengers who become inebriated onboard.

Some incidents have nothing to do with overindulgence of spirits and are just bizarre.

May 29, 2003: On a Qantas domestic flight operating from Melbourne to Launceston (Australia), a psychologically disturbed passenger rose from his seat and tried to gain access to the flight deck. Armed with wooden stakes, the passenger attacked the flight services manager, who helped subdue the passenger. Later, it was revealed that the passenger’s goal was to crash the aircraft into The Walls of Jerusalem National Park.

The solution to the unruly passenger problem comes in steps. One step is getting the traveling public and major stakeholders, including political leaders worldwide, to recognize that an unruly passenger can pose a genuine threat to the safety of staff and other passengers. Then, airlines must implement training programs, instructing frontline employees how to deal with unruly passengers. Authorities must also institute regulatory policies and laws to prosecute, fine and even jail offenders.

“Once people realize that there are serious consequences to misconduct onboard flights, then we will see a reduction” in this problem, said Tim Colehan, Assistant Director, External Affairs, IATA.

IATA offers a three-day course at its training centers and regional training partner locations. The course provides “practical, methodical training” to help aircrews and ground personnel to handle incidents objectively. Course-takers learn to identify and calm unruly behavior “in its early stages.”

Students learn what can trigger a passenger’s aggression and what forms it takes, determine the severity of an incident and learn to use effective de-escalation techniques and restrain an unruly passenger when required.

The problem warranted a two-day discussion in September, the DISPAX (Disruptive Passengers) World Conference 2019, in London, covering unruly passengers, sexually deviant behavior inflight, sexual harassment and human trafficking (which CAT covered in Issue 4/2016, “Hidden in Plane Sight”. SAS and Virgin Atlantic told attendees about their training programs to manage unruly passengers, while Finnair discussed the use of behavioral analysis to identify and deny boarding to “problematic passengers.”

“Unruly passengers continue to be a major problem for flight attendants onboard,” said Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA)-CWA, which represents 50,000 flight attendants at 20 (mostly) US-based airlines. “We are calling for clear guidelines from the Department of Transportation to ensure everyone in aviation understands our role to keep people safe and hold accountable any abusers.” At DISPAX, Nelson talked about sexual harassment and assaults on flight attendants.

On noteworthy training programs, Nelson said Alaska Airlines is “ahead of the curve on addressing sexual harassment.” AFA encourages flight attendants to take the Crewmember Self Defense Training taught by the US Federal Air Marshals.

Wizz Air, a Hungarian low-cost carrier, has observed a growing number of unruly incidents in recent years, in line with the growth in passenger traffic. The ratio of unruly incidents per operated flights is flat presently, according to Stanislav Bukhman, Head of Group Safety, Security and Compliance.

Wizz Air launched several initiatives to reduce the number of unruly passenger incidents. In 2018, the airline joined the International Zero-tolerance Initiative against disruptive passengers. In addition, the airline began an internal campaign to inform colleagues about the airline’s zero-tolerance approach. This included informing passengers about rules of conduct onboard and possible consequences against unruly passengers through social networks, email and their inflight magazine.

Analysis of Wizz Air crew reports showed those airports most affected by disruptive behavior. Which prompted the LCC to initiate targeted measures, including announcements at boarding gates and distribution of leaflets and placing placards in local languages onboard the aircraft.

“Advanced filtering of potentially disruptive passengers by ground staff and following up of unruly cases with the Wizz Air legal department and local police also help control the numbers of unruly passengers,” said Bukhman.

Every three years, Wizz Air cabin crews receive initial and recurrent training in conflict management and self-defense.

Kaarlo Karovonen, Head of Security, Finnair, is a firm believer in identifying possible disruptive behavior through behavioral analysis, a form of profiling, before it reaches the crisis stage. “Behavioral analysis has long been mooted as a method of identifying passengers who may pose a threat to a flight; most [airlines] are proposing the introduction of passenger differentiation techniques in order to address the terrorist threat.” Karovonen added: “Nevertheless, the analysis of passengers’ behavior, their gait, their demeanor, their interaction with others, their response to questions and their degree of engagement with the security personnel could also serve to identify passengers displaying any suspicious behavior (eg, related to smuggling, alcoholism, mental health, etc) and could thus help us to identify and handle passengers who may become unruly.”

Airlines for America (A4A), an airline lobbying group, issued this statement to CAT: “The safety and well-being of every traveler is and will remain the highest priority for US airlines. Our members take these matters seriously, and inappropriate behavior toward crew or passengers is not tolerated. Airline employees receive extensive customer service training, and there are well-defined procedures in place for crewmembers to report observed or reported incidents that may occur onboard the aircraft.”

Many airlines are training their cabin crew in self-defense and martial arts for dealing with aggressively disruptive passengers. Image credit: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock.

MP14: Five-Year Wait

A major challenge for airlines on curbing disruptive behavior onboard aircraft is getting all nations to band together in a global effort. Help may be on its way, finally, though it is coming rather slowly. Dealing with unruly passengers will be helped enormously if the ICAO-led Montreal Protocol 2014 (MP14) becomes ratified, its backers claim. Five years on, as of September 2019, only 21 of 193 ICAO member states had signed MP14; a minimum 22 are necessary to ratify.

A list of countries that have ratified MP14 (the US, UK and Germany are not among them):

IATA, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Association (IFALPA) submitted a joint paper on unruly passengers for the 40th Triennial ICAO Assembly, 24 September – 4 October in Montréal. The paper provided examples of issues that airlines face today under the existing Tokyo Convention, including disruptive passengers. IATA stated the importance of dealing with the growing problem of unruly passengers: “The severity of some unruly passenger incidents, along with their operational consequences in flight and on the ground (in the airport before and after the flight), are alarming.” IATA Director-General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac, said, “No passenger or crewmember should be subject to insult, threats or abuse from another air traveler.” And the safety of flight should never be endangered by passenger behavior. Adoption of MP14 will ensure that States have the necessary powers to deal with unruly passengers irrespective of where the aircraft is registered.”

The lack of internationally recognized laws and accepted guidelines further complicates the fining and prosecution of offenders. “One of the problems we have today is when disruptive passengers are delivered to authorities,” explained Colehan. “It is a question of jurisdiction.”

Say you have a US-registered (N) aircraft that lands in another country following an unruly passenger incident. Under the present Tokyo Convention, the US has jurisdiction. In most cases, the local police release the passenger from custody because they have no jurisdiction or mechanism to prosecute or fine the passenger.

Colehan said IATA has seen some progress with recent cases of prosecution, which included prison sentences and/or significant fines. [The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can fine unruly passengers up to $25,000 per violation.]

Passage of MP14 and the new ICAO/IATA-issued guidance material on dealing with unruly passengers will help. Their recommendations emphasize the use of de-escalation and, in extreme cases, the use of restraints. Under MP14, the country in which the aircraft lands can prosecute the disruptive passengers, if the country is a signatory to the protocol.

In the United Kingdom, from 2013-2017, there was a significant increase in the number of alcohol-related disruptive passenger incidents. But those incidents have “leveled off, thanks, in part, to the ‘One Too Many’” campaign. The program, launched in summer 2018 and continued through last winter, had the backing of the UK government, 10 participating airports and four industry partners.

The campaign generated numerous stories and on-air interviews in traditional media as well as millions of impressions on social media. Facebook ads reached over 1.5 million users, generating over 4.5 million impressions across the UK and at selected airports. For the winter campaign, four additional airports joined. They included: Heathrow, Leeds Bradford, Liverpool John Lennon, and Belfast International. Since then, Bournemouth, Exeter and Norwich Airports, which are part of the Regional & City Airports Group, and Doncaster Sheffield Airport, have joined. Plans are to continue with the campaign through the end of 2019 and beyond. In some instances, the campaign “complements these airports’ own initiatives in place to deal with disruptive passenger incidents,” stated a campaign news release.

Making passengers aware of the collective no-tolerance policy by carriers is a move in the right direction. But training aircrews and ground personnel as well as passing tough laws allowing countries to prosecute unruly passengers are also needed to significantly reduce the incidents of unruly passengers.

Published in CAT issue 5/2019


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