The aviation industry has set a flightpath for dealing with disruptive passengers. The IATA World Security and Operations Conference in Hanoi, Vietnam this month saw a practical session on unruly passenger behaviour and reviewed industry best practice for addressing the issue, which appears to be on the rise.
Primed for conflict
Reports of anti-social behaviour among tourists seem like a daily occurrence but the advent of smartphone cameras and social media mean that incidents that may have been quickly forgotten in the past can now be captured on camera and shared thousands of times online. Drawing attention to the issue may normalise abusive behaviour or mean that some travellers are already looking for trouble before their journey starts.
Compounding that, Simple Flying notes that the “sharp rise in disruptive passengers during the pandemic” was accompanied by more aggression. The pandemic, and the “polarized geopolitical environment” around it, had a “unique effect on the mental health of passengers,” which, it is argued, effectively “primed many passengers for conflict” and led to “more disruptive incidents in the cabin and on the ground.”
The issue has not, however, diminished with the rollback of Covid-19 restrictions.
According to IATA data, a problem passenger surfaced once every 568 flights in 2022, an increase from once per 835 flights in 2021. Incidents where physical aggression was recorded also increased, by more than 60% year-on-year.
A unified approach from the industry is seen as the first step. One of the difficulties in dealing with problem passengers is that flights are global and passengers are varied when it comes to nationality, meaning that authorities do not always have the right to pursue cases through the courts.
It was high levels of collaboration, for example, that allowed an Easyjet flight from Liverpool to Tenerife South earlier this year to deal effectively with a group of about 12 passengers who became disruptive. A quick landing procedure was triggered to mitigate any delays on the ground and police boarded the plane before any passengers disembarked. At the time local news reports noted that: “The speed in the response of the authorities and the teamwork allowed the plane to land without major complications and a more serious situation was avoided.”
To facilitate similarly effective responses in the future, IATA is supporting the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Montreal Protocol 2014, or MP14. Signatories agree to grant the relevant jurisdiction for authorities to tackle problem passengers through legal pathways.
Unfortunately there are still only 45 signatories to the protocol, meaning around 67% of international passenger traffic is not covered by the protocol’s protections. Getting more signatories on board is seen as vital.
IATA is also urging airport authorities, retailers, hospitality and other groups to come together to find solutions. Alcohol consumption before, during and after flights is noted to exacerbate issues with passengers, so working with licensed retailers, bars and restaurants should be a priority.
Reporting is considered patchy. Last year, KLM and Transavia became the first airlines in the world to share data on unruly passengers placed on so-called “No Fly lists.”
While the IATA’s Incident Data Exchange provides a shared platform for recording episodes with unruly passengers, it is not used by all airlines. What’s more, the way incidents are described and recorded varies between those that do.
Better quality and more consistent information will help the industry learn relevant lessons and share best practice.
Training and retention
Training for those that record and report incidents is only part of the solution.
The industry emerged from Covid-19 with huge recruitment issues, having laid off experienced employees during the pandemic. As new recruits begin to take over, good training, including how to deal with disruptive passengers, is seen as another key plank of the approach.
Simple Flying notes that TUI has “implemented a psychology-based conflict strategy that has helped it deal effectively with disruptive incidents onboard its own flights.”