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Aviation: Disruptive passengers

A British man has been ordered to pay $21,260 (Canadian) to Westjet to compensate for the cost of fuel used during a return to Calgary at the beginning of a flight to London. The passenger had consumed six drinks while waiting for the flight, then became belligerent and repeatedly tried to get up to use the toilets during take off. The captain elected to return to Calgary but had to dump 20,000lbs of fuel before landing. The troublesome passenger was arrested and subsequently pleaded guilty to charges of failing to comply with safety instructions and resisting arrest. A restitution of $65,000 was requested but the judge said he did not want to bankrupt the traveller. However, it was pointed out that Westjet could pursue a civil case to recover the $200,000 it is estimated the passenger caused.

Meanwhile, another traveller on a United Airlines flight from London to Washington DC repeatedly banged on the screen in the back of a seat, was incoherent and slurring, and drank from an open bottle brought onto the aircraft. The captain decided to return more than an hour into the journey. The passenger plead guilty of being drunk on board an aircraft but denied assaulting a crew member and another customer. The defendant was ordered to pay £4,000 and was advised that she could face further costs if the airline elected to sue her.

Disruptive passengers

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) defines a disruptive passenger as one who: "fails to respect the rules of conduct at an airport or on board an aircraft or to follow the instructions of the airport staff or crew members and thereby disturbs the good order and discipline at an airport or on board the aircraft."

In the UK acts of drunkenness on board can involve a fine of up to £5,000 and two years in prison, while a grater charge of endangering the safety of an aircraft carries a term of up to five years in jail. Nevertheless the penalties haven't been a deterrent to some as the number disruptive passengers reported to the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) escalated rapidly between 2012 and 2016, although they leveled off a year later as the message slowly started to get heard.

Disruptive passenger reports (source UK CAA)

2013 - 98

2014 - 145

2015 - 195

2016 - 415

2017 - 417

2018 - 326 (up to 31 October)


Although disruption can arise from drug use, mental heath issues, anxiety and frustration, excessive consumption of alcohol is the number one cause of incidents caused by passengers. Many people like a drink before flying, and The Aviation Oracle is no stranger to taking two or three gin and tonics before boarding, but that only ever had a soporific effect.

Clearly though drinking before flying can sometimes cause problems, and the cases already highlighted illustrate that the full weight of the law still isn't being thrown at those causing disruption.

Extended check-in times mean passengers spend longer in departure lounges. Drinking is an escape from boredom. (Andy Mitchell)

Some observers advocate banning all alcohol sales in the airside zones of airports, there are a few problems with restricting alcohol.

Firstly, many airports and airlines earn significant sums from the sale of alcoholic beverages in terminals and on board aircraft. At some airports it is by far the biggest source of revenue inside the terminal.

Duty free is lucrative but raises the possibility of passengers consuming excess alcohol. (Maksym Kozlenko)

Duty free / tax free sales are also a lucrative source of income that neither airlines nor airports want to lose. The margin is good and any decline in sales would be recovered from increases charges for other services such as car parking, landing fees and passenger service fees, as well as air fares.

Its difficult to stop anyone loading up with alcoholic drinks before they check in, and such actions are unlikely to be detected unless the passenger is already behaving badly as they deposit bags or pass through security.

Excessive drinking before boarding can occasionally cause disruption. (Michal Osmenda)

Once in the departure lounge, more drinks can tip some travellers over the edge.

There's another issue with frequent flyers, and The Aviation Oracle knows only too well that many airline lounges offer 'free' self-pour alcohol - or at least provide it without restriction.

Most airlines do not want to cut alcohol in premium cabins as doing so could upset frequent travellers. (Matt @ PEK)

Most carriers would be reluctant to do anything that could upset their best customers, so this source of drink is almost certain to remain available to some passengers. And once on board the same applies - very few airlines will risk upsetting travellers in their premium cabins by cutting off alcohol unless a problem becomes significant.

Finally everyone in the industry needs to be vigilant. Staff at boarding gates on on board aircraft aren't always adequately trained to deal with confrontation and hesitate to report unruly behavior, sometimes leaving it for the next worker in the chain to deal with.


More widely though there is a case for limiting access to alcohol in the airside areas of terminals. Today's modern point-of-sales systems, many of which are already capable of scanning printed or mobile boarding passes, could be adapted to limit sales to each customers. That doesn't get past the possibility of drinking and non-drinking travellers pooling their allocations, but it would put some limits on consumption. Likewise, many carriers using card-only devices to record in-flight sales and it should be possible to record the seat numbers of those purchasing drinks and again limit supply.

It could also be worth airlines and airports looking at restricting bottle sales 'duty free on arrival', where alcohol is ordered in advance or on board but only delivered to customers after landing. With a little forethought and planning, revenue could be allocated to the point of sale rather than the point of collection. This would avoid passengers opening bottles and drinking unrestrictedly during flight.

In November last year, the Home Office sought evidence of "alcohol-related disruptive behaviour at our airports and the impact airside alcohol licensing could have on reducing this problem." Earlier this year the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) and the European Alcohol Policy Alliance called for the extension licensing laws so that bars and shops in airports are covered by the same rules as the high street. And in July 2018 Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg launched the "One Too Many" campaign, suggesting that excessive drinking could cause delays, diversions, cancellations, fines and jail terms.

Stronger deterrence

The campaign and suggestions of restrictions won't stop disruption caused by alcohol consumption, but they could reduce their frequency. Any punitive action to reduce consumption must be applied in combination with greater deterrence and larger fines / longer jail terms for convicted offenders. Again the examples already quoted indicate courts are so far not applying the maximum sentences available.

Its all very well a judge not wanting to bankrupt an offender, but there is a real risk that one day a disruptive passenger could affect the lives of everyone on board an airliner. A court in Leicester, UK, did sentence a drunken passenger who abused other customers and kicked the seats to six months in jail last year. Judge Philip Head said: “This demands a deterrent sentence so people who travel by air and get drunk will know there are consequences.”

Another man who threatened to kill a member of cabin crew and repeatedly punched the seat of another traveller on a Belfast bound flight was also jailed last year, this time for five months. Decisions need to be applied more consistently and penalties resulting in detention need to be widely publicised to deter others.

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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