IATA calls for greater governmental action on Unruly Passengers while a SMS review more likely to increase aviation safety proactively

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ARTICLE: Rise of Unruly-Passenger Incidents Prompts Call for Better Rules


According to IATA, there were almost 9,000 unruly passenger incidents last year, a dramatic increase from 500 reported in 2007. The association called for greater governmental punishment of these transgressors, i.e. more arrests and criminal penalties. While publicity of the possible negative consequences may deter some of the wanton behavior, this approach really ignores the source of the problem. Few travelers get on board with the intent of getting drunk and causing problems.

It is well known that some passengers have fears about flying and that emotion wells up before he/she boards the plane. A few adult beverages to calm the nerves is an all too often precipitant to this dangerous behavior.

Unruly passengers are a SAFETY problem. Once on board and once exhibiting obnoxious, sometimes physical actions, both cabin and cockpit crews are going to be distracted from their essential duties to literally arrest the miscreant. That’s bad. The pilots and flight attendants, while dealing with the incident, are not devoting attention to their jobs of operating an aircraft; the diminution of the safety margin is antithetical to their professional disciplines.

A preventative approach to this problem would be to identify and interdict the problematic passenger BEFORE she or he boards the airplane. The Passenger Service Agent is not really considered part of the safety team; their function is to process the paperwork and get everyone on the flight. While a PSA may have been briefed on the issue of drunk passengers, it is not likely that this position is not fully aware of the problem (9,000 such incidents cause major operational problems, severe customer inconvenience, delays and added costs). What is also missing from the PSAs comprehension of the problem is an appreciation of the safety risk.

Increasing that awareness is the most likely method to motivate this function to take the time to interdict the passengers who should not be boarded. As just articulated a PSA is being placed in a functional conflict—they are trained to move the passengers from the waiting room to the cabin; we are asking these individuals to do the reverse- block access to a revenue-paying passenger and likely creating a tense scene. The safety consideration would enhance the likelihood that an agent would try to be sensitive to telltale signs that would identify someone checking in as a probable problem.

One of the complaints about Safety Management System’s methodology is its 360° approach and its tendency to consume the time of airline personnel who are at best tangential to safety. Involving the airport staff in the time-consuming SMS discipline would be a typical complaint about a request for a PSA, for example, to join in the examination of safety considerations. The above recitation is a perfect demonstration of how such broad involvement would increase the likelihood that unruly passenger incidents can be diminished, if not prevented.

Calling for greater governmental involvement in punishing passengers for disruptive behavior is a reactive approach. A more proactive method would be to refer the matter to SMS. Such an effort might find a second iteration approach like including a note in the passenger’s records to alert future PSAs to be aware of past problems. Such are the positive attributes of the SMS 360° view.

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