Unruly passengers on aircraft are increasing: where to draw the boundaries of tolerance?

As the aviation industry enjoys a phase of recovery, the rise in unruly passenger incidents poses new challenges to flight safety. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reports a 47 percent surge in cases of unruly behavior over the past year. Vytautas Akstinas, Head of Security at GetJet Airlines, the Lithuanian ACMI and charter carrier, identifies smoking electronic cigarettes during flights as one of the major cause of such behavior, highlighting the need for new measures to address this issue.

An unruly passenger is defined as someone who behaves aggressively, psychologically or physically violently in airports or during flight, does not follow the rules set by the airlines and refuses to follow the instructions of the airport or crews. During the pandemic, the number of such passengers jumped sharply, and the main reason for this at the time was the refusal of travelers to wear protective masks during flights.

Although pandemic restrictions were lifted or relaxed as much as possible in 2022, incidents of unruly passengers have almost halved, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which unites more than 300 airlines. Most of these incidents were related to passengers not following the instructions of the flight attendants, such as smoking, not wearing a seat belt, and consuming alcohol brought on board. These behaviors accounted for 37 percent of all cases.

Vytautas Akstinas, Head of Security at GetJet Airlines, emphasizes the importance of understanding the root causes of unruly passenger behavior.

“There are several factors that can provoke such behavior among passengers on a plane. These may include long wait times during check-in, boarding, or waiting for food or drinks. Additionally, psychological problems, intoxication from alcohol or drugs, excessive use of medication, as well as fears and stress related to air travel can contribute to such incidents. While airport staff and flight crews are dedicated to ensuring flight safety, the unpredictability of passengers can manifest unexpectedly and pose a risk. Each violation disrupts the crew’s primary responsibilities and hinders a smooth flight,” explains V. Akstinas.

The most common form of unruly behaviour – smoking

According to the specialist, many passengers underestimate the importance of proper preparation and time management for their flights, leading them to believe they can indulge in various prohibited activities during the journey.

“Statistically, about half of the disruptive passengers are those who smoke during the flight. Some people still hold the misconception that they can get away with smoking e-cigarettes, believing it is not the same as regular cigarettes and that smoke detectors will not detect it. However, this is not the case. Another group of unruly passengers irresponsibly consumes alcohol during the flight, leading to conflicts and endangering others. We often notice these issues on flights to popular southern resorts.”

In response to the increasing number of unruly passengers, the European Union’s Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which governs US commercial aviation, have implemented a “zero tolerance” policy. Passengers are required to comply with lawful instructions from crew members, and those who fail to do so may face significant fines and the risk of being banned from boarding a plane for life. Many countries’ laws also provide for arrests, fines, and even imprisonment for behavior that endangers the flight and the well-being of passengers, including acts of psychological or physical violence.

“We encounter unruly passengers on flights at least once a week, and in several instances, we have prohibited travelers who violated the rules on our flights from boarding. As part of our commitment to promote respectful and courteous behavior on board, GetJet Airlines has joined EASA’s international initiative Fly Right this summer. This initiative offers advice to travelers on how to have a pleasant flight experience for themselves while ensuring they do not cause unpleasant experiences for others,” says V. Akstinas.

Key advices for travelers:

– Do not smoke (electronic cigarettes too). Smoking in the aircraft cabin and toilet is strictly prohibited during the flight. Such behavior is considered a violation of public order and poses a direct threat to flight safety due to the risk of fire.

– Do not consume alcohol brought on board. It is forbidden to consume intoxicating beverages that you have brought with you, as well as those purchased in duty-free shops at the airport. During the trip, you can only enjoy alcoholic beverages provided by the crew. The supply of alcohol to passengers whose actions have a negative impact on flight safety may be suspended.

– Follow the instructions of the crew. The key to a comfortable and safe trip is to adhere to airline safety instructions and flight rules. Flight attendants are there to ensure your safety.

– Respect others. Aircraft can be crowded, but it is essential to respect the personal space of the person next to you. Avoid leaning on your neighbor’s seat or trying to claim their space, and refrain from excessive alcohol consumption. Show respect to other passengers and the airline staff.

– Fasten your seat belts. It is recommended to wear seat belts throughout the entire flight. If you plan to take a nap during the trip, it is advisable to fasten your seat belts to avoid being woken up when the seat belt sign is turned on by the captain.

– Cultivate patience. Delayed flights, long security checks, and crowded boarding areas can be stressful. When you start to feel irritated, practice understanding and patience. This will help create a more pleasant atmosphere for those around you.

– Help others. Small gestures of kindness can make a difference. If you see someone struggling to handle a suitcase, lend a helping hand. Holding a door open or assisting with overhead lockers can mean a lot to others.