Unruly Passengers: keeping them on the ground

By Banu Nair

Since the first act of unlawful interference against aviation over 80 years ago, and especially in the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11, the aviation industry has had to adapt to an ever-changing range of threats and develop enhanced security initiatives to prevent future attacks. A multi-layered security system has been adopted which can best be described as a ‘system of systems’ in the sense that there are many smaller component systems embedded inside a larger system, built in such a way that the overall effectiveness doesn’t rely on any single layer. However, despite all the security controls, technologies and methodologies, unruly passengers remain a real challenge and continuing concern for airlines worldwide.

The weakest link in this multi-layered security system is the element of human behaviour. In order to enhance security, the industry should focus on paying greater attention to human factors and reducing human error, aiming to achieve the integration of all available human, informational, and equipment resources to execute the effective performance of a safe and efficient flight.

Safety in the air begins on the ground. Unruly passenger incidents are best managed in a preventative manner by keeping disruptive behaviour off the aircraft. Dealing with disruptive passengers inflight, and later punishing them, is one thing, but the aim of stakeholders must be to prevent these incidents from occurring in the first place. And the only way to do this is by trying to understand what triggers the disruptive behaviour: the stress of getting to the airport; fear of flying; long check-in processes; security queues; delays; alcohol consumption; claustrophobia; communication errors; cross-cultural incompetency by front line personnel; frustration linked with a journey; mental health issues; heat; cabin atmosphere; cabin crew attitude; and, the list goes on…

The tendency to view disruptive behaviour as an inflight concern that can be solved at 37,000 feet, in a confined space and without necessary tools needs to be rethought. The industry needs to start acting on the ground to both detect early signs of potentially disruptive behaviour and prevent incidents that are, in many cases, obviously going to escalate into inflight security incidents and, therefore, safety incidents.

It is essential for air carriers and airport management to develop a preventative strategy based on increasing the awareness of passengers and all employees as to how the air carrier will respond to disruptive acts. Accordingly, front line personnel dealing with passengers, including airport vendors and especially those serving alcohol at airside restaurants and bars, where passengers may spend considerable time after having cleared the screening check points, need to be trained to have a better understanding of pre-flight disruptive behavioural triggers and improve their own ability to identify potential incidents and report passengers that might not intend to commit a crime yet who, as a result of their deteriorating behaviour, may potentially pose a challenge to aircrew inflight. Unruly passengers become a problem when the industry fails to identify and act on the problem early enough in the chain.

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