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Oh, unruly passengers. There always seems to be a story in the news about a passenger on a plane who is arrested or removed. Like this one.  Or this one. But once you get into the numbers of unruly passengers, a larger story emerges. I was surprised to find that overall incidences are decreasing, but more severe events, commonly called ‘air rage’ are occurring more frequently. Behind it are different policies, legal gaps, and training at work, with responsibility mainly falling on flight attendants.

The stats of unruly passengers

From 2007 to 2016, over 58,000 unruly passenger incidents were reported on an aircraft in-flight, including all levels of severity. In 2016 alone, 9,837 unruly passenger incidents were reported. That’s 1 in every 1,424 flights. Remarkably, that is a decrease in reported incidents. In 2015 it was 1 in every 1,205 flights.

While the overall number appears to be going down, the more serious events, like ‘air rage’ are increasing. Statistics from December 2017 show a 50% rise in incidents who were forcibly confined for behavior ranging from verbal abuse and physical abuse to life-threatening actions.  And even more interesting in that arrests overall have decreased. This is largely attributed to gaps in international law. Often, the law enforcement arriving at the airport fail to take legal action, due to the aircraft being registered in a different country. So even culprits who have committed serious offenses can be let go without receiving punishment.

So what’s the plan?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has a three-pronged approach for continually handling these situations. Putting it simply:

Strong legal deterrent + enhanced prevention and management = a safer and better flight for all

By strengthening international legal framework so all governments have the necessary legal tools to be able to take action when necessary, and increased training at multiple levels, we can hope to see a decrease in unruly passengers overall. Some of these trainings are how to de-escalate situations or restraining techniques. It also includes guidance for airports, restaurants, and duty-free shops, to ensure responsible sales of alcohol.

It falls on our flight attendants

This sounds like a good plan, right? The one downside is the additional stress, time, and work put on our flight attendants. As airlines are packing more people on planes, more incidents are bound to arise. Sara Nelson, spokesperson for International President of the Association of Flight Attendants, says “The issue of unruly passengers can escalate very quickly. . .airlines should increase the number of flight attendants on flights and at gates. If they did, Nelson continued, airline employees could identify drunk passengers more often and prevent them from getting on planes”.

Most flight attendant’s are taught to observe behavior before the passengers even enter the cabin. They look for loud passengers and signs of drugs and alcohol. They often make direct eye contact with passengers to assess if they are under the influence. The cabin crew is usually alerted of particular passengers if these signs are marginal. If it’s severe enough, the passengers can be picked up at the gates before boarding the plane.

What to do if you encounter an unruly passenger

  • Discreetly notify a flight attendant. The best way to keep the situation from escalating is to not engage the passenger or create a scene.
  • Don’t intervene, yell or stare, though this is often the natural instinct.
  • Stay seated if the situation escalates. Passengers who intervene are more likely to be seriously injured in the process.

There is a lot of information to unpack here. Though overall unruly incidents are decreasing, air rage is higher than ever. Often, arrests and other legal ramifications are not viable, due to legal restrictions. And overall, our flight attendants are superheroes in disguise. In addition to making us comfortable, relaxed and hydrated, they are trained in de-escalating and restraining air rage. Next time you fly, be extra nice to your flight attendant!

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