Behaving badly has indeed taken off. Air rage, as it is called, has become increasingly more frequent as people’s interest and need to travel grow. However, more flight availability and more competitive fare prices has not made being stuck in a small, enclosed space for long amounts of time any easier.
Long-haul flights can bring out the worst in some Australian passengers. Add to that a smoking addiction, drunkenness, anxiety and general anxiousness about flying, it could mean a concoction of potential mid-air problems for flight crew and other passengers.
Queenslander Matt Lockley’s in-flight “panic attack” saw him bang on the door of the cockpit, thinking it, he claims, was the toilet. The 28-year-old was said to have thought the passenger sitting next to him had tried to smuggle illegal drugs into his bag while he was asleep. The incident triggered an emergency landing and shut down Bali's airport for several hours.
Then there was the case of “drunk” Australian passenger on an international Jetstar flight to Christchurch last month who told crews he had an AK-47 machine gun after flight crew were told he lit a cigarette mid-flight. It was believed the man was “just mouthing off”.
And who can forget the 36-year-old woman who groped a crew member on the buttocks and tried to kiss him on the cheek on a flight from Manila to Melbourne. The woman was reported to have consumed "bit of vodka" during the flight while she was taking medication. Her husband is said to have yelled at flight crew during the incident.
Trevor Bock, aviation safety and quality consultant for over 30 years, says flight crews complete rigorous security training processes to deal with disruptive passengers.
Crews are taught to observe passengers and to take notice of any signs of unusual behaviour. The observation starts even before the passenger enters the cabin.
“The process begins at the boarding gates,” says Bock. “Crews are taught to be vigilant of passengers not only checking their boarding pass, but also looking for behaviour that is not normal.”
This includes loud passengers, passengers who appear to be under the influence of drugs, passengers with blood-shot eyes or displaying a sense of disorientation.
Bock says crews often look at the eyes of passengers to assess if they are may be under influence of any substances.
“If these signs are picked up at the boarding gates, the crew can prevent the passenger from boarding,” he says. “However, if these behaviours are marginal, crew at the gates will allow them to board but pass this information onto cabin crew to alert them to the particular passenger should potential problems arise mid-flight.”
If you are presented with aggressive, paranoid passenger on board a flight, the safest way to handle the situation is to discreetly notify aircrew to avoid further agitating the unruly passenger. The natural instinct may say to intervene, but it is best to leave fight crew to handle the situation. Things which passengers should avoid doing in this situation is to yell or stare at the unruly passenger. If the situation escalates into a struggle between crew and the unruly passenger, it’s best to remain in your seats until the unruly passengers has calmed down.
Bock says there have been a number of cases on board North African flights where passengers have intervened but were seriously injured in the process. He also notes that since the events of September 11, in 2001, passengers have become more attentive to the behaviour of other people on board the same aircraft.
In the case of an intoxicated passenger, Block says once crews are aware they will first stop serving the passenger alcohol and explain why to them why they are doing so. If he or she continues to yell and be disruptive, crews will then isolate the passenger by moving them to an empty row usually at the back of plane.
“General rules of engagement apply,” he says. “Passengers will only ever be restrained if they lay their hands on crew in an aggressive manner, such as pushing a crew member.
“Passengers who do assault cabin crew will be restrained with flexi-cuffs, but only if the crew feels threaten by the disruptive passenger.
“Flight crews have a duty of care for aircraft passengers as well as their flight crew members.”
In 2013 there were 383 reported events of disruptive persons on board aircraft in Australia (domestic flights and incoming or outgoing international flights) notified to the Office of Transport Security (OTS). This was down 2 per cent on 390 reported incidents in 2012 and down 18 per cent from 465 in 2011, according to OTS figures.
A spokesperson from the department says these figures represent around 4.3 disruptive incidents per million passengers carried. These figures include passengers smoking on aircraft, inappropriate comments, intoxicated passengers, altercations between passengers and other unruly behaviour on board aircraft.
While Australian law (the Aviation Transport Security Regulations 2005) states it’s an offence to engage in conduct that could be interpreted as a threat to commit an unlawful act that interferes with aviation while at a security controlled airport or on board an aircraft, airlines themselves set their own conditions of carriage which passengers must comply with.
On January 1 this year, a German man was restrained by Emirates flight staff after he assaulted a crew member and threatened to open a door mid-flight after crews tried to stop him from smoking on board a Singapore-Brisbane flight. The man was said to have consumed five small bottles of red wine, including four on the Singapore-Brisbane leg of flight. Up to seven people attempted to restrain the man, with one crew member suffering a shoulder injury.
However, drunkenness is not the only form of passenger behaviour which is not tolerated. Airlines won’t tolerate behaviour that constitute offensive and disorderly conduct, such as physical assault, verbal abuse or sexual harassment; any acts that interfere with the crew or threatens the safety of the aircraft or people on board; onboard smoking in any part of the aircraft and disobeying instructions of cabin signs or by the crew. In some cases, certain airlines have banned passengers who they have identified as being disruptive and unruly. The crackdown on unruly passenger behaviour has also extended airports now having displays that warn passengers of a zero tolerance policy.
In the US, the number of unruly passenger incidents each year logged with the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has dropped significantly from 330 reported incidents in 2004, to 160 reported incidents in 2013. The Mirror UK writes that the drop could be due to heavy penalties that apply under US law for unruly passenger behaviour.
In Australia, unruly passengers can also receive an infringement notice issued by Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) or even prosecution. If the passenger posed a threat to the flight, the plane could be diverted and the passengers in question off loaded.
Peter Gibson, spokesperson for CASA, says the when it come to air travel and safety, the singular best thing to do is to listen to the advice of the “experienced cabin crew”.
“For all things during a flight, passengers should act upon any instructions or direction from the crew,” Gibson says. “If the crew asks you to do something and it is a reasonable request, passengers should follow.
“Flight crews, their primary job is to ensure the smooth operation of the aircraft; the service part of their job is secondary.”
While Australian and US figures indicate disruptive passengers incidents is on the slow decline, air-rage remains a possibility many travellers will have to face.
Globally, air passengers have become more unruly with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) saying the global number of unruly passengers has increased between 2007 and 2011 (the last year for which they published data).
In 2007, IATA figures report 500 incidents of air passenger unruliness globally and by 2011, that figure increased to 6000. Alcohol was said to be the main cause, but there are some suggestions low-budget fares and more crammed plane conditions could have been a contributory factor.
In December last year, Tim Colehan from IATA told a group of reporters that “unruly passenger behaviour ... is on the increase”. So much so that the Geneva-based group held a conference in Montreal in March to seek an agreement on the rights of crews and captains to do whatever is necessary to subdue offenders. He said that since 2007, when it began recording data, well over 15,000 incidents have been reported.
The reasons behind air-rage is plenty – there is the long airport queue, delays, lack of information, overbooking, passenger handling at airports and a non-smoking policy on board aircraft. This results in passengers often feeling tired, bored, frustrated and stressed.
“[This sort of behaviour] is not unique to aviation,” Bock says pointing out the higher number of reported road-rage and violent and drunk behaviour in pubs and clubs. The cause of air-rage appears to be something more symptomatic of society today than anything else, he says.
“Roughly, 85 of per cent people who display air-rage are under the influence of substances that affect brain function, such as drugs or alcohol, or suffering from psychosis which they have not been hospitalised for.”
While it’s a small minority of air passengers who are behaving badly, it’s hard to say if there is a particular type of passenger that is generally more disruptive, Bock says.
“It can be anyone; it can be a member of parliament in first class or a passenger in shorts and thongs with a stubby at the back of the flight,” he says. “The availability of low budget flights means you get a bigger cross-section of the public flying.”
Bad passenger behaviour is not limited to the average every-day passengers. French actor Gerard Depardieu was kicked off a City Jet flight in 2011 for urinating on the plane carpet. The “drunk” actor attempted to urinate into a bottle as the plane was in the runway queue for takeoff, however he also urinated in the floor. The plane was grounded for a few hours while staff cleaned the carpet.
But it’s not only intoxicated passengers who have trouble flying. More commonly, passengers suffer anxiety about flying or a fear of it.
For anxious flyers, Bock advises that they should let flight crews know and avoid drinking before and during the flight.
“Crews will keep an eye on passengers who let them know they feel anxious when flying and they will check on these passengers during the flight.
“If the passenger is travelling on their own, they may ask the person sitting next to them to reassure them that it will be ok, and once the seat belt sign is off crews with check on the anxious flyer.”
Airlines such as Qantas also run fear of flying classes to help passengers overcome the jitters and anxiety they may feel towards flying.