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In the film, Wolf of Wall Street, there is a scene where Leonardo Di Caprio, under the influence of drink and drugs, becomes disruptive and has to be restrained. But, what happens in real life situations when air passengers become unruly?

What are the triggers?
Sometimes the trigger can be as simple as a polite request to switch off an electronic device, but most often it is the influence of alcohol or drugs – the former, being readily available at the airport and on board.

On the ground
The best way of dealing with unruly passengers is to keep them on the ground.  Airlines have opportunities to spot potential problems before take off, e.g. at check in and at the boarding gate, and should not allow a potential unruly passenger to board.  Once the aircraft is in the air, things become more complex.

In the air
Once in the air, the aircraft commander has ultimate authority on how to address the situation (authority given by the Tokyo Convention 1963 (more details below) and the Air Navigation Order).  However, as flight crew may not exit the locked flight deck during flight, they must rely on the cabin crew to assess and manage situations and keep them fully informed. Where the safety of the aircraft, passengers and crew is deemed at risk, it may be appropriate to use restraints (if carried on board).

Sometimes the only course of action is to land the aircraft by diverting to the nearest available airport. This carries enormous cost implications including dumping fuel, landing fees, ground handling fees, purchase of new fuel and possibly paying compensation to the other passengers.  Another risk is that the crew may run out of hours.

The airline also runs the risk that the authorities at the diversionary airport may not have the power to deal with actions that are committed on a foreign registered aircraft.  It may be that a crew member has to personally press charges against the unruly passenger.  Whilst damages may be recoverable from the disruptive passenger(s) – in practice this is often not a practical or simple solution.

Practical approaches to dealing with disruptive passengers

1.Clear policy and procedures – A zero-tolerance policy combined with procedures to ensure that all unruly passenger incidents are reported and documented to enable understanding of the incidents and provide sufficient information for prosecuting the offending passengers.  The airline must support the crew both in the air and on the ground, allowing time for the crew to give statements and attend court.

2.Train all personnel – Airlines should ensure that ground handling staff and those of any agents that they may use, as well as cabin crew and flight crew are aware of their responsibilities and the company’s procedures.

3.Improve communication – Facilitate the sharing of intelligence between security personnel, ground personnel, cabin and flight crew to help identify and diffuse situations earlier.

4.Airport – Work with airports to promote passenger awareness of unacceptable behaviour and the legal consequences. Airports need to acknowledge the negative effects of  passengers drink to excess at the airport and work with airlines on a solution.

5.Warning cards – Use of notification warning cards to be presented by crew to unruly passengers warning of the consequences of their actions.

What does the law say?

The Tokyo Convention 1963 deals with unruly passenger behaviour on board.  It was primarily designed as an anti-hijacking measure and does not account for the current more relaxed approach to air travel, e.g. accommodating and coping with “stag and hen dos” etc.

The Tokyo Convention enables the commander to either disembark or deliver the passenger.  To disembark a passenger the commander needs to land the aircraft and remove the passenger from the aircraft.  Delivery means that the passenger is handed over to local law enforcement authorities.  This can only be done if the aircraft has landed in a country that is a party to the Convention.  The commander also has to be of the opinion that the unruly passenger has committed an offence under the law of the state where the aircraft is registered.

In the UK, the Civil Aviation Act 1982 also provides a statutory footing for certain practical measures available to a commander who is faced with an unruly passenger. For example, where a commander feels that a passenger poses (or is about to pose) a threat to the safety of an aircraft, its passengers, crew, or the good order and discipline on board, the commander may seek assistance from the crew in restraining the passenger. The commander can also request assistance from other passengers in restraining the unruly passenger.

Proposal to revise the Tokyo Convention

It is generally accepted that the 50-year old Convention should be revised to equal today’s air travel behaviour and to provide clarity which focuses on:

• resolving the jurisdictional question that these incidents present – should the issue be managed in the state of registration of the operator, the place of departure of the aircraft, the place of landing of the aircraft, the diversionary airport, the miscreants’ place of residence or that of the victim of any crime?

• the possibility of blacklisting disruptive passengers and sharing information globally amongst airlines – which may result in data confidentiality concerns.

• a standard incident reporting form for use both by airlines and crew but also to assist the police and prosecuting authorities.

We will update you on developments.

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