Disruptive passengers: we hear plenty of stories about their mid-air antics, but are airlines doing enough to ensure unruly passenger behaviour does not impact on the safety and security of crew, aircraft and customers’ enjoyment of flights? As aviation goes through a ‘factory reset’, Joe Carpenter questions whether airlines should be changing the way they approach this problem.

Since 9/11, aviation security has mainly focused on the threat from terrorism, and understandably so; air travel continues to be a high-value target for terrorists and attacks can happen anytime, in any place, usually with devasting consequences.

It was hard to imagine anything could affect aviation like the 9/11 attacks, especially a threat that is not terror-related. But COVID-19 has done just that, with effects that will last considerably longer. With that in mind, has the time now come to refocus some of the aviation security resources away from the protection against terrorism to a more frequently occurring and disruptive security event, specifically, unruly passengers?

Prior to COVID-19, industry-wide incidents of unruly passengers were on the rise, with stories regularly appearing online and in newspapers, and no airline was, or is, immune.

The leading cause of disruptive passenger incidents is alcohol. Most of us will have been in a pub or nightclub and seen the negative impacts of excessive alcohol consumption. Luckily, in these situations, we have been able to walk away and avoid potential conflict. At 37,000ft, aircraft crew and customers don’t have this option.

Some readers may have been involved in such an incident whilst working and seen first-hand the significant impact a disruptive passenger can have on airline operations, the staff involved and the customer experience.

“…passengers travelling to Hong Kong during the annual rugby sevens tournament in March will be different to the passengers on that route for the rest of the year…”

As airlines struggle to resume normal operations, even with low passenger numbers, incidents are on the rise, with COVID-19 fuelling tensions within the cabin and causing passengers to become disruptive – we’ve already seen fights breaking out over mask-wearing, and hazmat-clad officials removing passengers from aircraft. So, as aviation continues its recovery and passenger numbers increase, it’s highly likely that disruptive passenger incidents will too.

Going forward, airlines will need a more comprehensive approach; airlines need to employ more proactive measures, ones which go beyond just contacting the local police post-incident, and training that does not simply consist of conflict resolution and restraint techniques.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution; each needs to be tailored to airlines, routes and passenger demographics. Below we take a look at the overarching strategy that airlines could employ to deal with this increasingly disruptive problem.

It’s not just about dealing with the aftermath

To date, airlines tend be re-active; their training focuses on how crew can deal with an already occurring incident, concentrating on de-escalation techniques and, if all else fails, passenger restraint.

Experience dictates that it is better to prevent the disruptive incident from occurring in the first place. So, although it is important for airlines to continue to train staff to respond to incidents and have processes in place to investigate them, they need to be more pro-active, investing time and resources into preventative measures.

The strategy for this should be based on a four-strand approach:

1) Intelligence
2) Collaborative Working
3) Initiatives
4) Post-Incident

We’ll now explore these in greater detail.


How can you solve a problem if you don’t fully understand it?

Accurate and relevant data is vital in preventing disruptive passenger incidents. Airlines traditionally record incidents and evaluate incident rates based on the total number occurring in, for example, a month, without consideration of the total number of passengers travelling within that time period. Airlines should record and evaluate incident rates in relation to the total number of passengers flown; for example, the number of incidents per 100,000 passengers. If incidents are recorded in this way, greater volumes of passengers will not affect the incident rate and any increase in the overall problem will become more apparent.

Furthermore, accurate data is based on accurate reporting by front line staff. It’s imperative that airlines have timely, standardised and detailed reporting mechanisms so every incident can be investigated and analysed. If the reporting process is too complicated, staff will simply not follow it. Additionally, airlines must develop a positive reporting culture and the data collected must include the root cause of the incident as this gives key insight into what preventative measures need to be implemented.

In addition to seasonal demand, events around the globe will also influence passenger numbers, with certain routes becoming popular over a specific time period; for example, over sporting events or music festivals. These events can not only influence demand but can cause changes in the demographic of the passengers travelling. For example, passengers travelling to Hong Kong during the annual rugby sevens tournament in March will be different to the passengers on that route for the rest of the year. Airlines must analyse and predict these changes, identify events, and understand the passenger demographic, so they can tailor their approach and implement increased preventative measures.

“…incidents are on the rise, with COVID-19 fuelling tensions within the cabin and causing passengers to become disruptive – we’ve already seen fights breaking out over mask-wearing, and hazmat-clad officials removing passengers from aircraft…”

passengers sitting

“…pubs at Gatwick Airport do not serve shots of alcohol…”

men drinking at bar

Collaborative Working

Isn’t this just a problem for cabin crew?

Airlines need to recognise that they cannot solve these problems on their own – they must work with other airlines and industry partners; in particular, law enforcement, airports and retailers. Everyone at an airport can contribute to preventing such incidents; for example, some airport retailers only sell duty-free alcohol in sealed, tamper-evident bags, and pubs at Gatwick Airport do not serve shots of alcohol. Airlines would benefit from engaging with these partners and be open about the extent of the problem so they can find ways of supporting them.

Equally, airlines must look within their own organisations for solutions as this is not a problem confined to just the cabin crew or security team. All departments – front line, operational and commercial teams – must collaborate to raise awareness. The security team can be proactive by forming and leading a working group made up of representatives from different functions across the organisation. This will help gather support and bring fresh ideas while helping to build trust and joint responsibility with the front-line staff who must deal directly with the disruptive passengers, often by putting themselves in the firing line.


Sounds good on paper, but does it work?

There are varying initiatives that can be used and tailored to the specific airline and routes. Gathering intelligence and working collaboratively will help identify what these should be.

An example of an initiative that has previously proved successful involves airline security personnel supporting front-line staff on problematic flights by maintaining a presence at various touch points, including at check-in, in the lounge, and on the aircraft during boarding. The security team engages with large groups whose behaviour indicated that they could pose a problem, setting out the expectations of how they should behave in flight and the consequences of being disruptive. This engagement also takes place in the departure lounge bars where spotters identify potentially problematic groups. This type of initiative utilises the expertise of the security team to set a standard and support the front-line staff.

A further example of a successful initiative involves collaboration with local police. Once problematic flights have been identified, regular police presence at the gate and in the terminal prior to departure can have a significant deterrent effect. For particularly problematic flights, police officers may conduct a ‘walk-through’ down the aisle of the aircraft just after boarding. The presence of an authoritative stimulus such as this has been shown to help settle rowdy passengers prior to take off.

Necessary to the success of any initiative is the security team’s involvement in the delivery of crew training. Airlines have statutory training requirements; however, security teams can add value to the training content, ensuring that it is relevant to what is actually happening in the air and on the ground. Recent case studies and the success of any mitigation measures should be included. Bespoke training to cabin crew centred around behavioural detection techniques can help crew better identify potentially problematic passengers, which could mean incidents are identified early on and on the ground where they can be more effectively dealt with than at 37,000 feet.

“…engagement also takes place in the departure lounge bars where spotters identify potentially problematic groups…”

jet nose


Does the incident end at “doors to manual”?

Unfortunately, no matter how robust the prevention measures are, you are not going to stop incidents occurring. So there must be clear and effective follow-up procedures.

There should be an expeditious evidence-gathering process, which makes it easy for a largely remote workforce to report incidents. This can be achieved through electronic reporting forms, which are designed to extract the pertinent information from staff who have not had the training to write comprehensive statements.

The security team should be the decision-makers regarding any action taken against a disruptive passenger. Options open to the security team include a complete ban of the passenger or allowance for the passenger to travel but with extra conditions of carriage, for example, an alcohol ban during the flight. Whatever the outcome, it’s imperative that the result is fed back to the staff involved as it must be demonstrated that the matter has been taken seriously. This builds trust with the front-line staff and encourages them to take positive action, including pursuing a prosecution with local law enforcement.
Significant incidents must be reviewed, and any lessons learnt must be fed back to the staff involved, as well as the wider business, to ensure continuous improvement.

arrest at airport

Going Forward

Airlines can no longer just rely on the police to deal with disruptive passenger incidents; they must focus their efforts on preventive and proactive initiatives, based on intelligence and working in collaboration with others. If airlines can successfully reduce the number of disruptive passenger incidents by effective initiatives, the police and security services at airports can focus more of their resources on protecting against other threats, such as terrorism. This allows airlines to divert resources away from counterterrorism to address more regularly occurring security matters, such as disruptive passengers. This will in turn strengthen the airline’s reputation with customers and mitigate financial losses incurred when such incidents take place, which in the post COVID recovery, is more important than ever.

Joe Carpenter

Joe Carpenter is a corporate security specialist for Virgin Atlantic. He previously worked for the airline as long-haul cabin crew before spending 13 years in the police force, during which time he specialised in counter terrorism as a detective in the Counter Terrorism Command for the London Metropolitan Police. He also worked in Special Branch at Gatwick Airport where he specialised in behavioural detection and the insider threat.