In recent years, a combination of the global financial crisis and a rise in political tensions has undoubtedly increased many passengers’ stress levels. Global security threats and terror alerts, as well as ongoing regional conflicts across the Middle East and tensions between the major world powers – or in the case of North Korea, the not-so-major powers – have resulted in many left feeling out of control or, even, vulnerable. Added to that the rise in the number of people seeking assistance for, and suffering from, mental health problems unrelated to geopolitical issues, it is perhaps not surprising that cabin crew are encountering increasingly challenging behaviour inflight. Vincent J. McNally considers some techniques which might better equip aircrew to successfully resolve issues before they become serious problems.

The mental consequential effects of terrorism include flashbacks, heightened anxiety, emotional numbing, frequent crying, and trouble concentrating. Many people would argue that terrorism has not affected them as they were not actually present when attacks have taken place – 9/11 as a case in point. But, in reality, the vast majority of us were there, watching it live on our television screens and re-living it over and over again. It has become a part of the ‘new normal’ we now live in, and the aftermath of these attacks, alongside the distress and trauma they have caused, spills over into the airline industry and frequently affects our interaction with passengers who carry this emotional baggage with them or for whom something in their personal life is causing them added distress. How, then, do we best diffuse a situation where a passenger may be angry and unruly either within the terminal or onboard the aircraft, and what can we do to engage them?

The airline industry is currently under the microscope, with every action being scrutinised by the press and politicians. Each volatile situation requires the responding employee or manager to utilise all their skills to effectively handle the emergency response. Whether the situation relates to an out of control individual, an accident, or a deliberate criminal act, the immediate response is what counts and people will remember the first thing an airline official says whether it is good or bad.

“…11.3% of all travellers experience some kind of psychiatric problem…”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four people globally will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. Even though a variety of treatments and support networks are available, two-thirds of those affected will never seek help from medical professionals. Narrowing these statistics down, research by Felkai and Kurimay, for example, in the Journal of World Psychiatry (2011), indicated that 11.3% of all travellers experience some kind of psychiatric problem. And that was then.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in 2017, there was one unruly passenger incident for every 1,053 flights – higher than the 2016 incident rate of one incident every 1,424 flights. The three most commonly occurring unruly behaviours according to IATA were non-compliance with smoking rules (24% of all incidents), intoxication (27%), and failure to adhere to safety regulations (49%). 2,500 passengers across five geographic areas were polled by Rockland Dutton Research & Consulting on behalf of IATA and 32% of all flyers stated that they had witnessed unruly or inappropriate behaviour over the previous six months with 80% of them feeling that the perpetrators should have been subjected to criminal prosecution.

In order to address the unruly or psychologically impaired passenger, the flight crew must be trained in the proper response to the incident. Airlines have their own company policies which are impacted by guidelines issued by IATA, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), and national aviation authorities. The Tokyo Convention (1963) makes it unlawful to commit offences that would ‘jeopardize the safety of the aircraft or of the persons or property therein or which jeopardize good order and discipline on board’.

All programmes should be culturally sensitive, and include the principles of crisis negotiation (e.g. the FBI’s First Responder Hostage Negotiation) and stress management (e.g. comprehensive acute traumatic stress management – CATSM for short – as developed by Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D. and Raymond D. Shelton, Ph.D.) Both of these courses focus on addressing the psychological underpinnings necessary to diffuse a crisis situation. I have utilised both to instruct senior Iraqi police in Baghdad, with the courses having been culturally adapted to take into consideration local religion, etiquette and politeness, as well as other verbal and non-verbal communication cues. Additionally, the above courses have been adapted to instruct cruise ship managers and maritime security how to deal with unruly passengers; most actual incidents involved mental health medication coupled with alcohol.

There are a number of prevalent behaviours which may indicate that a passenger is struggling with their mental health or suffering from psychological impediments, including;

  • Difficulty understanding simple things concepts or conversations
  • Incoherent and rambling conversations
  • Causing disruption to other passengers
  • An inability to sit still and moving around the aircraft, and
  • Disregard for crew instructions.

The strategies and intervention discussed will focus on communication in time of crisis and conflict resolution which are the basic principles of the FBI Hostage Negotiation course. Instruction relating to physical altercations and restraint training should also be provided to the airline cabin crew and is a topic for additional courses.

“…you must then attempt to identify what is important to the individual – we call these the hooks…”

Early detection is the key to mitigating any issues before they escalate and training should be provided to both inflight and ground crews including check-in staff, security screeners and boarding gate personnel. Proactive intervention prior to boarding could help to prevent disruptive behaviour becoming out-of-control inflight. When the aircraft is inflight, escalation of unruly behaviour is compounded by dealing with the individual in a closed confined space.

When the unruly passenger escalates his behaviour and actions, the cabin crew becomes the first responder. In crisis negotiation, the first 15 to 45 minutes becomes the critical period. Unlike being on land, the crisis management team is not available during a flight and the first step would be for a member of the cabin crew to initiate dialogue to de-escalate the confrontation in order to lower tension. An introduction by the cabin crew should be the first step: “Hello, my name is _______ (no rank or title) with ______ airline. I would like to help. Are you OK?”

An assessment should be initiated to answer the questions: “What is happening?” and “Why is it happening?” If you are able to grab the attention of the unruly passenger in the first 30 seconds, you have met the first goal – to initiate communication with the individual. One of the basic tenets of hostage negotiation is that if a person is talking, he or she will not harm himself or others. You must then attempt to identify what is important to the individual – we call these ‘the hooks’. These are what the unruly passenger values; it could be specific people, pets, possessions, their job, hobbies, etc. If you can identify this hook, your communication issues with the subject will become easier and peaceful resolution becomes more likely.

As a hostage negotiator, I was once asked to assist a police department in the management of a barricaded individual. The police advised that the subject wanted to talk to his mother and the police went to bring the mother to the scene. I requested the police negotiator to ask the subject to come out as his mother was on the way. After the police asked the subject to come out and surrender, he did so and was taken into custody. It is never too early to ask the individual to comply with the instructions of the flight crew for a safe and orderly resolution.

Usually, it is emotions, not reason, which are controlling the individual’s behaviour. Anxiety and fear are the predominant emotions. You might say, “I can understand that you are upset. However, when you yell at me, I feel frustrated because it stops me from listening to you.” What has happened is the individual’s normal coping skills have failed and there is a precipitating event, most likely in the last 24-48 hours, whereby the individual has experienced a real or perceived loss. This loss may include the loss of job, health, loved one, money or self-esteem. During the first few minutes confusion and chaos dominate the situation. The individual’s responses may range from verbal abuse to silence. Assume nothing. If you are unsure what the unruly passenger wants… ask them! It is also important to talk about everyday matters as it keeps the subject talking and helps build rapport.

Ensuring the safety and security of yourself and others is of the utmost importance. In crisis negotiations you never negotiate alone, the same is true on an aircraft. As a security officer on a cruise ship, if I perceived the situation escalating out of control, I would contact the ‘bridge’ and request immediate assistance. Usually when the individual overheard this request that was enough to diffuse the situation. Obviously, this cannot apply on an aircraft during flight. What can be done is that the flight crew can do their own assessment of passengers boarding and those he/she feels might assist them they could make a mental note and this person could be a resource when needed. This may not be written in company policy as not every emergency has a predictive response.

“…repeat the command exactly as stated: “Mary, I want you to take a deep breath”…”

Comprehensive Acute Traumatic Stress Management (CATSM) complements crisis negotiation in that it ‘jump starts an individual’s coping and problem-solving abilities’. As each individual is different in their responses to traumatic incidents onboard an aircraft, positive responses by the flight crew to abnormal situations will remain in a passenger’s mind just as negative actions will remain with the passenger. CATSM addresses the psychological response of those in crisis on an aircraft during and after an incident.

When dealing with a person who is particularly challenging, whether emotionally or mentally, the first responder crewmember must break through the mental state of the individual in order to effectively communicate and follow instructions. In CATSM there are five techniques to engage the individual:

  1. Distraction: this involves introducing a topic or making a comment to divert the individual’s attention when an individual is unresponsive to efforts to engage and then return to the present issue of concern.
  2. Disruption: this technique is extremely effective in refocusing the individual so the flight crew can provide direction. “…In a clear and calm voice, while directly looking into the individual’s eyes, give a basic command using his/her name: “Mary, I want you to take a deep breath.” The pause, and in a slightly louder more forceful voice, repeat the command exactly as stated: “Mary, I want you to take a deep breath.” Continue to repeat the command, always in the same words. Escalate the volume and tone with each command statement. Usually by the third command the individual will follow your request. At that moment, lower your voice to a calm level and begin to talk…”
  3. Diffusion: this strategy involves being able to connect to the individual by diffusing his/her emotional state. This technique is applicable to an anxious or agitated person by matching their volume as well as speaking as rapidly as they are speaking. The idea is to start slowly to lower the volume until the individual becomes calm so that you can provide direction.
  4. Decision: this strategy is very effective in dealing with a challenging individual. You give the individual two choices which then allows the out-of-control individual to feel that they can have part in decision-making. Thus, we move forward toward constructive behaviour.
  5. Direction: when a challenging individual is non-responsive to a calm supportive instruction, the direction can be changed to an authoritative tone to control the individual rapidly.

Each of the above CATSM techniques and the crisis negotiation strategies are dependent upon the assessment of the responding crew member and the particular situation. These techniques provide helpful tools to aid in diffusing volatile situations and maintain the safety and security of all onboard the aircraft. Reality-based training for crew members and ground handling agents is integral in implementing this programme. As in all critical incidents which have escalated to a violent level, debriefing and counselling should be provided to the affected airline employees to help alleviate the ‘imprint of horror’.

Vincent McNally

Vincent McNally is an air and sea security consultant as well as a mental health trauma consultant and continues to provide worldwide response and training. Vince served 30 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) including Senior Resident Agent at JFK Airport, New York, Crisis (Hostage) Negotiation instructor, and Unit Chief/Administrator of the FBI’s Employee Assistance Program. Vince was an instructor for senior police in Baghdad, Iraq, and thereafter was a security officer on cruise ships throughout the world. Vince also was the Assistant Superintendent for Security at Honolulu Airport. Vince serves on the Board of Scientific & Professional Advisors of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress (National Center for Crisis Management). He also provides assistance to military veterans as a court mentor, as well as a Special Deputy Sheriff for marine patrol for Indian River County, Florida. Vince can be contacted at:

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