Unruly Passenger Incidents Have Become Fewer, But More Severe

The unruly passenger crisis endangers all passengers on board and can result in costly flight diversions. While the number of incidents have decreased slightly, severe offenses are becoming more prevalent.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported on the state of the unruly passenger crisis during the IATA Media Day event in Geneva this week. Tim Coleman, IATA’s assistant director, External Affairs, shared the most recent statistics from IATA’s 2016 Safety Trend Evaluation, Analysis and Data Exchange System (STEADES), which includes reporting from 190 participating airlines.

There were over 58,000 unruly passenger incidents on record from 2007-2016, across all four levels of disruption, categorized by IATA as Level 1-4, which range from failure to comply with safety procedures and crew requirements as level one offense, to an attack on the flight deck as a level four offense. Because the statistics come from only those airlines which participate in STEADES, Coleman said incidents may actually be underreported.

The rate of incidents in 2016 decreased, compared to 2015, with one incident for every 1,434 flights in 2016 versus one in every 1,205 flights during 2015. However, Level 2 incidents – which include physical assault, obscene behavior, verbal threats, harassment, or tampering with emergency or safety systems onboard – increased from 11% of total unruly incidents in 2015, to 12% in 2016.

“In the confines of an aircraft, [Level 2 incidents] are difficult to manage,” Coleman said. “Fortunately, the vast majority of incidents were Level 1 incidents…the good news is that many of these incidents can be managed to a satisfactory conclusion by the cabin crew using de-escalation techniques.”

There was also an increase in the number of unruly passenger incidents where all forms of de-escalation techniques failed, resulting in a need to physically restrain passengers. During 2016, there were 169 of these cases reported, compared to 113 in 2015.

“Governments must do their part by ensuring that we have a strong deterrent.” – Tim Coleman, IATA

Intoxication, caused by alcohol or narcotics, plays a role in a large number of unruly incidents. Though the majority of these (2,844 incidents) were Level 1 events, there were 444 Level 2 incidents attributed to intoxication in 2016. That represents a third of all Level 2 incidents.

“What really is needed is continued focus by multiple stakeholders –by governments, by airlines and airports, and other companies – to implement the comprehensive approach IATA set out in our core principles back in 2014,” said Coleman. “Governments must do their part by ensuring that we have a strong deterrent. And we need airports, airport restaurants, airport bars and duty-free providers to make sure that they are serving, promoting and selling alcohol responsibly so we don’t have incidents of intoxication in the air.”

Philip Baum, managing director, Green Light, Ltd, an expert aviation security and training consultant, gave a special presentation on tools that can help cabin crew prevent escalation of onboard incidents, and also help them de-escalate situations before circumstances require passenger restraints. Baum identified five phases of crisis escalation, as reflected by passenger behavior, pointing out that crew’s ability to detect early signs of trouble, and the way in which they manage those signals, may help avoid more serious incidents onboard.

He summarized the technique using the acronym CAP: Concern, Action, Perspective. Baum said that crew should demonstrate their concern when a passenger first demonstrates a “trigger” of potential unruly behavior, and humanize the circumstances. Action would include sharing information on the triggers observed and also communicating with the passenger on what can be done to resolve their issues, where appropriate. Perspective involves an evaluation of the circumstances, in dialogue with passenger, covering what can be done and how effective that might be. It includes getting the passenger to buy in to the problem being resolved, though in some cases of mental illness or severe intoxication this might not be impossible.

Legal deterrence of unruly behavior is particularly problematic for aviation. “Because of gaps in international law, often times unruly passengers who have committed quite serious offenses are let go without receiving punishment for what they’ve done,” Coleman explained. Under existing international law, the state of the aircraft registration has jurisdiction over the culprit. Because of this, when a flight is operating outside the country in which the aircraft is registered, law enforcement at the arrival airport may fail to take legal action against the unruly passenger.