Penalising the Unruly Passenger

by Diana Stancu, Managing Director of Safe and Secure Skies.

The number of unruly passenger incidents making it into the news headlines is on the increase. Regardless as to whether or not such reporting is indicative of an actual increase in incidents, as opposed to ‘reported’ incidents, the issue is certainly one of considerable concern to the aviation community and, in particular, to flight crew whose lives are on the line. These incidents impact the safety and security of the aircraft, cause discomfort to fellow passengers and crew, and cause financial loss to airlines when flights have to be diverted as a result. Diana Stancu asks what legal measures are in place to deter and deal with perpetrators of unruly behaviour on board international flights, where the issue of jurisdiction can be a problem.

Passengers used to have so much respect for cabin crew and incidents of unruly behaviour were rare and due, primarily, to a fear of flying and the over consumption of alcohol or use of narcotic substances. Times have changed and the range of causal factors has increased.

According to IATA’s STEADES (Safety and Trend Evaluation, Analysis and Data Exchange System), unruly passenger behaviour increased by 54% in the period 2007 to 2011. In total, there were 6,156 unruly passenger incidents recorded for 2011, up from 5,544 such incidents recorded for 2010. For the period 2007 to 2011, 22% of all incidents were serious enough to require the intervention of police or security services at the place of landing. The data collected was provided voluntarily and even though it gives a significant sample, it does not constitute an industry-wide view of unruly behaviour on flights worldwide. After all, most airlines around the world are not even IATA members and unruly behaviour does also take place on domestic flights which, in places such as Australia, China, Russia, Canada and the US, can be as long as many international flights.
An unruly passenger is defined as a passenger who fails to respect the rules of conduct on board an aircraft or refuses to follow instructions from flight and cabin crewmembers and therefore disturbs the good order and discipline on board an aircraft. Unruly or disruptive behaviour can include: verbal or physical confrontation with crewmembers or other passengers, intoxicated behaviour, the illegal consumption of narcotics, alcohol or cigarettes, refusal to comply with safety instructions, making threats that could affect the safety of the crew, passengers or aircraft, sexual abuse and harassment and other types of behaviour that could jeopardise the safety or alter the good order and discipline on board the aircraft.

These incidents are sometimes referred to the local authorities upon landing. However, when doing so, what should be an easy process is rarely as straightforward as it seems. Many crew describe difficulties in dealing with authorities at foreign airports, not to mention the differences in the definition of offences and the subsequent penalties between jurisdictions, with some unlikely to prosecute at all or only impose a lenient penalty. Moreover, authorities at the place of landing may not even have jurisdiction, thus the prosecution of the unruly passenger is not pursued at all.

The Legal Framework
The Tokyo Convention of 1963, on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed On Board Aircraft, provides the legal framework for dealing with unruly behaviours on board aircraft engaged in international flights. However, this legal regime does not provide an adequate deterrent for such behaviour, mainly because jurisdiction is given to the State of registration of the aircraft and the jurisdiction for the State of landing does not exist. It is true that the identity of the unruly passenger can be easily established which, in theory, could facilitate the job of the law enforcement authorities, but this does not mean that the passenger can be prosecuted. Depending on the seriousness of the incident, the State where the aircraft lands does not have the jurisdiction to prosecute the offender if the act has been committed on board an aircraft registered in another State; hence, the perpetrator of the incident is left unpunished. The role of the State where the unruly passenger disembarks is not clearly specified in the Convention. In that regard, the Convention fails to directly address a practical reality – the necessity to appropriately deal with an unruly passenger at the point where they are handed over to the authorities on the ground.

 

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