THE RISE OF THE UNRULY PASSENGER
Unruly passenger incidents are on the rise; is the modern airline industry part of the problem?
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says unruly and disruptive passengers are "a very real and serious safety issue" which needs to be closely monitored.
One recent incident on an Icelandair flight left a man bound and strapped to his seat with duct tape after he allegedly yelled, spit, hit and screamed profanities at other passengers, making international headlines after pictures of the restrained individual hit social media.
Though the way in which the flight crew dealt with the problem passenger was unique, the situation is becoming increasingly familiar. In fact, since 9-11, reports of unruly passengers have been steadily on the rise.
Reported incidents have increased more than 600 per cent in recent years. What constitutes air rage ranges from verbal aggression or intimidation, to sexual harassment to physical violence.
IATA studies indicate that the number of incidents appeared to have decreased in the years immediately following 9-11, but have been increasing steadily since the mid-2000s.
In her book Anger in the Air: Combating the Air Rage Phenomenon, Dr. Joyce A. Hunter, a professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, addressed the key issues behind the question at hand, and the problems within the airline industry culture that may be leading to the increase in unruly passengers.
"Passengers are now confronted with a lot of safety issues that they weren't confronted with before," Hunter told TRAVELHotNews.com.
In the post 9-11 world, air travel comes with more stress and security than it once did. Hunter said these new processes are creating passengers that are more susceptible to incidents of air rage, due to added pressure.
"People are now very anxious and feel there is an invasion of their privacy," she said. "So people can become verbally or physically abusive, or they can simply become very obstinate."
Flying: No longer a pleasant experience
For Hunter, who first began working in the airline industry in 1966, the stark rise in incidents is also largely related to the change in attitudes towards the flying experience; by passengers and the airlines.
"Customer service was paramount," she said of customer relations in the 1960s. "Nowadays, I think that a lot of issues and problems the airlines have created stems from the fact that their employees are not delivering customer service to the level that passengers feel they are entitled to."
Customer service isn't the only factor that has changed. The overall flight experience has evolved as the mode of transportation has become more affordable and more popular. This evolution of the way we fly may also be at the root of the increase in problem passenger incidents.
"The flights are more full...people are carrying more stuff on. So the boarding process is more stressful. The plane is crowded. The seats are smaller," explained Dr. Andrew Thomas, a professor at the University of Akron, founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of Transportation Security and the author of multiple books on the topic of airline safety.
"You add that along with the natural reasons people do this stuff - alcohol or a lack of a nicotine fix, mental illness, legal or illegal drug abuse - and it becomes a cocktail for more of these cases happening."
Though the flight experience has changed over time, airlines have been slower to change the expectations they create concerning the flight experience and this helps to compound frustrations further, according to Hunter.
"The airlines set passengers up for unrealistic expectations," she said. "That has to do with advertising. As a novice, we sit at home and we look at an ad on television and we get a certain vision about flying."
When those expectations aren't met, passengers may feel that the airline has falsely advertised its product and that they are no longer receiving what they thought they were paying for.
What can the flight crew do?
While it may be obvious that an overhaul of the way fly in this day and age might be necessary if we are to witness a decrease in the number of air rage incidents, the truth of the matter remains, for the time being: unruly passengers are not going to go away.
So what are flight crews allowed to do in order to deal with an unruly passenger?
In Canada, procedures in the case of unruly passenger behavior is regulated by Transport Canada. In its information guide on unruly airline passengers, the organization states that "obviously the ideal situation is to prevent any on-board incidents in the first place by dealing with rowdy or intoxicated passengers prior to boarding or departure."
Transport Canada advises that all staff, whether ground passenger agents, supervisors or aircrew be vigilant on the ground. The organization states that if a passenger is unruly, threatening or disorderly to ground staff or other passengers at check-in or in the lounge, they are likely going to be a problem for the air crew once on board.
Drunkenness, unusually loud or boisterous behavior, threatening, violent or disruptive behavior and smoking in no-smoking lounges are some of the obvious warning signs Transport Canada points to as needing positive preventative action.
However, passengers infrequently become unruly prior to departure.
"There's not much the police can do while the aircraft is airborne; therefore, crew members must rely on the resources they have on the aircraft," reads the Transport Canada guide.
Relying on the resources on the aircraft seems to be exactly what the crew on the Icelandair flight did in order to control their unruly passenger. The question is whether or not the flight crew was in their rights to do so.
"They have empowered flight attendants much more," commented Thomas on what flight crews can do to deal with unruly passengers.
Much of that empowerment has come under the guise of security in the post 9-11 world. In the event that a problematic passenger threatens the safety of the aircraft or the passengers on board, the flight crew can simply notify the cockpit and the plane will usually be diverted and put on the ground.
But such dramatic measures are rarely necessary in the thousands of documented cases of air rage. This causes a dilemma for the flight crews that are forced to deal with the passenger while the flight maintains its course. This in turn can be problematic for the airline, according to Thomas.
"It's one thing to say that we are dealing with threats, because threats mean 9-11, hijackings, and al-Qaeda. But if you're dealing with the thousands of air rage problems every year...and you are training your flight attendants to stop it, or prevent it, or reduce the threat of it, what ultimately happens is you open yourself up to class action lawsuits."
A complex issue
It is obvious that the protocol for dealing with unruly passengers is a complex issue for the industry.
In an attempt to help its members with the issue, IATA created the Guidance on Unruly Passenger Prevention and Management.
In his foreword to the Guidance document, IATA senior vice president of safety, operations and infrastructure Gunther Matschnigg says that "there is no one-size-fits all approach." Instead, he says IATA offers the guide as a tool from which its members can draw "inspiration" and "learn from industry best practices."
With that in mind, the question arises: is restraining unruly passengers with duct tape now considered an industry best practice?