Comment: What to do about disruptive air passengers?

Comment: What to do about disruptive air passengers?

‘Air rage’ is back in the media, and it’s time something was done about it, says industry consultant Andy Cooper

In recent weeks we’ve seen Ryanair ban duty free alcohol on flights from Prestwick to Ibiza, easyJet remove drunken passengers from a Bristol-to-Mallorca flight, Jet2.com ban a passenger for life for exposing himself on a flight from East Midlands, and last Friday Jet2 impose a lifetime ban on a passenger flying from Leeds Bradford.

The aviation industry has for many years had an issue with passengers drinking too much and misbehaving on aircraft.

According to Wikipedia, the first recorded case of air rage was in 1947 on a flight from Havana to Miami when a drunk assaulted another passenger and bit a flight attendant.

Since then there have been many incidents, involving celebrities as well as ordinary passengers. While alcohol is not the only cause of misbehaviour, it is certainly a common feature.

I was directly involved in one well-reported incident when an Airtours flight from Gatwick to Montego Bay, Jamaica, was forced to divert to Norfolk, Virginia, to offload 12 passengers who were drunk and abusive.

Some of the group were prosecuted following their return to the UK and convicted for endangering the safety of the aircraft.

However, it is relatively unusual for criminal action to be taken against offenders, despite the obvious risk.

The CAA reported 139 incidents of disruptive passengers on UK-registered aircraft in 2013. But that number will hide the real total, as many incidents dealt with by airlines do not end up being reported.

It’s clear the industry has a problem with this issue and more needs to be done to address it.

Why does it happen and could more be done?

There is no doubt many people find flying stressful and this has only become worse in recent years.

Passing through airports is getting harder, with added security, the ever-present fear of terrorist action – however statistically unlikely – and the fact that travelling at 30,000 feet in a thin metal tube is an uncomfortable experience for some people.

That is coupled with the physiological aspects of flying – cabins are pressurised to replicate the air pressure at 6,000-8,000 feet, where the air is thinner than most of us are used to. Alcohol is absorbed into the blood more swiftly, making people feel more intoxicated.

We react differently to stress. In some cases, the response comes as aggression or misbehaviour. In the most extreme cases, this can result in violence towards fellow passengers or cabin crew.

At 30,000 feet there is a limited amount that can be done to control unruly flyers.

However, it is also a problem on the ground in the sense that the last thing anyone wants is to have another passenger on their flight starting a fight later at 30,000 feet.

So there is good reason for strict laws relating to behaviour on aircraft. Indeed, airline association Iata produces a 50-page manual to help carriers address the problem.

The legal framework appeared in the Tokyo Convention of 1963, which made it unlawful to commit “acts which may or do jeopardise the safety of the aircraft or of persons or property therein or which jeopardize good order and discipline on board”.

This has been implemented in national laws, and in the UK is addressed in the Air Navigation Order 2009.

But it is not necessarily an easy problem to address. Whilst alcohol is a contributory cause, it is by no means the only one.

The more radical suggestions, such as banning the sale of alcohol on board, don’t really help. In many cases, the offending passengers have drunk too much prior to boarding.

Equally, banning the sale of alcohol at airports, whether in bars or duty free outlets, wouldn’t entirely address the problem, although it might help a little. And is it really proportionate to tell all air passengers they cannot consume alcohol because a few misbehave?

It seems to me there needs to be a combined approach to the problem by all players in the industry.

This has to start with the police and prosecuting authorities. We all know budgets are under pressure, but the police need to be seen to take a strong hand with offenders, particularly the worst ones.

Airports and airlines need to consider their alcohol sales policies carefully. If I went to a pub in Manchester on a Saturday night and was clearly drunk, the staff should not serve me alcohol, at the risk of losing their licence.

Airport bars should adopt a similarly strict, or even stricter, approach in the knowledge that all their customers will be boarding a flight when they have finished.

There is a related issue with passengers buying bottles in duty free and drinking the alcohol on flights.

All airlines ban this, but how often do you see the surreptitious pouring of spirits into soft drink glasses?

The smaller the bottle, the easier it is to sneak it under the radar, so does it make sense to ban the sale of miniature and quarter bottles of spirits in airport duty free shops?

Banning misbehaving passengers is the ultimate sanction, but one that is incredibly difficult to enforce.

Unless the passenger has booked direct and the airline has their home address details, they could easily book again and not be spotted.

However, authorities around the world now require airlines to produce information on their passengers before a flight. If the details of banned passengers were supplied by airlines to the authorities, it should be possible to identify them before travel and prevent them flying.

The authorities already have ‘watch lists’ on potential terrorists, so it wouldn’t take much to add a list of unruly passengers. This is an area where the civil liberties of the many – the ability to fly without threat to their wellbeing – has to outweigh the data-protection downside. But we will need to work hard to persuade some that this is the case.

It would probably help airlines if they were able to share lists of those passengers they have banned – it might then be possible to prevent some booking in the first place.

To do this, the airlines would need to be certain they faced no risk of breaching data protection legislation.

None of these steps would necessarily prevent the problem, but if air passengers could see that strong action was being taken, it would give comfort to the vast majority and act as some sort of deterrent to the few onboard troublemakers.

I’m not holding my breath, but it’s in all our interests to call for such steps to be implemented.

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