Airline crews increasingly must restrain them

GENEVA, Switzerland -- Drunk passengers urinating on others. Passengers fighting with each other. And some trying to open the emergency exit door during a flight. 

Drunk, drugged, abusive and out-of-control passengers are causing more serious headaches for airlines and for their fellow travelers.

While overall reports of unruly passenger incidents dipped slightly during 2016, airlines worldwide reported an increase in the number of on-board incidents that involved physically abusive or obscene behavior by passengers. There's also been an uptick in the number of passengers that ended up being restrained.  

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Last year, airlines reported 9,837 unruly passenger incidents overall, according to a new report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). While that’s actually a modest drop from the 10,854 incidents reported in 2015, IATA believes airlines underestimate or under-report the extent of the problem. 

Of particular concern, IATA notes the 2016 numbers show a troubling increase in the times (11% in 2015 to 12% in 2016), incidents escalated from simply verbal, or "level 1," incidents to "level 2" incidents that involved physically abusive or obscene behavior, verbal threats of physical violence or tempering with emergency and safety equipment.

During 2016, 169 reported incidents ended with unruly passengers being restrained, a jump from the 113 reported in 2015.

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Cabin crew can often manage level 1 incidents with de-escalation techniques learned in training, says Tim Colehan, IATA’s Assistant Director or External Affairs. 

But, for 2016, Colehan says: “We saw an increase in incidents where all other forms of de-escalation had been exhausted and the cabin crew had no other option but to restrain the unruly passenger for the safety of everyone onboard.”

Looking more closely at the numbers, IATA found the incidents of unruly passengers most often related to people who were intoxicated by alcohol or drugs. 

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Sometimes, Colehan notes, passengers drink heavily in the airport before they board their flights or pour themselves drinks onboard from bottles they’ve purchased at duty free shops.

Passengers refusing to comply with safety rules -- such as refraining from smoking onboard, turning off electronic devices or observing seat belt signs -- was the second-most often cited issue relating to unruly passenger incidents. Disputes between passengers was the third.

Unfortunately, passengers involved in serious unruly behavior during a flight often face no charges when the flight lands.

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That’s because, under existing international laws, it is the authorities in the country where the aircraft is registered that have jurisdiction over an incident that takes place during a flight. And if a plane leaves one country and lands in another, authorities on the ground are often powerless to take action.

IATA hopes to help solve this problem by getting countries to sign what it calls the Montreal Protocol 2014, which gives legal jurisdiction over unruly passenger issues to the country where an airplane lands.

Twenty-two countries must adopt the the protocol to put the rules into force. So far, 12 have done so. IATA hopes the international aviation treaty will be fully ratified by 2019.

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IN PICTURES: 30 cool aviation photos

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