Airlines usually pride themselves on providing great customer service in a safe and secure environment – and we hire those most suited to perform this task. However, we rarely recruit cabin crew based on their conflict resolution or physical combat skills. So how do we prepare our staff to deal with aggressive, hostile passengers while isolated in an aircraft cabin without security personnel or police to assist them? Joe Saunders identifies the risks involved in physically restraining passengers at 30,000 feet, and discusses how best to mitigate them in order to ensure the safety of all involved.
There can be few situations more challenging, and potentially dangerous, for an unarmed individual than restraining an aggressive adult 30,000 feet in the air with no possibility of immediately landing or access to police intervention. Whatever the impetus for the behaviour – be it alcohol, drugs, a mental health condition, frustration or even an attempted hijacking – cabin crew are nearly always the only line of defence when it comes to preserving passenger and staff safety when violence occurs.
“…there is an identifiable link between subjects being restrained in a face-down position for extended periods and restraint-related death…”
There are numerous aspects of an unruly passenger situation that make this category of security threat particularly unpredictable. With regards to crew, we have a small team of personnel with limited training in physical self-defence or restraint techniques, limited equipment, usually no innate disposition towards conflict, and whose focus must be divided between the unruly individual(s) and the other passengers in their care. On the part of the passenger, we have an unknown number of variables. We do not necessarily know the motivations for their behaviour, what substances they may have ingested, what medical conditions they may have, or any other acute stressors that would ideally be evaluated in any other context. And lastly, we have the other passengers. How do we keep them safe? How do we prevent them from getting involved and starting a brawl on board?
The risk of violence on board an aircraft, while thankfully rare, is a risk like any other faced by the aviation industry, and should be managed with the same thorough and considered approach. After all, the reality is that crew are more likely to have to manage a case of air rage than the host of other safety-related procedures they are trained for, such as ditching at sea or assisting with a premature childbirth. Indeed, all possible options should be explored to address troubling behaviour before the passenger boards the plane. While this is common sense, experienced crew will often report that they knew an individual would be trouble as soon as they entered the jetway, yet the passenger was permitted into the confined environment of an aircraft cabin, allowed to drink in the hope it would ‘put him to sleep’ and then, predictably, became unruly and disruptive. The best restraint is the one that never turns physical mid-air because the passenger in question was removed from the flight prior to departure and left talking to the authorities back at the terminal. All of that said, we cannot ignore the fact that these situations do arise and we must be adequately prepared to handle them.
Preparing the Crew
Developing the Conflict Mindset
Crewmembers come from many walks of life, and may be attracted to the role for a range of reasons. However, once the excitement of airports and hotels has worn thin, it is the job itself that must provide its own reward. Those that elect to make a career out of flying tend to take joy in the simple act of delivering a quality service. Retaining such individuals is fantastic for maintaining, and even enhancing, the quality of that service, but often does not correlate with an innate ability to manage conflict or aggression. Being disrupted during service, or even during a break, in order to confront a dangerous situation is stressful and can lead to staff making poor decisions.
All customer-facing staff need to be trained to manage their own adrenaline when faced with interpersonal conflict, as we would expect them to do when conducting an emergency evacuation. This allows for a more thorough assessment of the circumstances, and enhances crewmembers’ abilities to make effective decisions.
Understanding the Nature of the Incident
Through situational awareness, observation and communication with the unruly passenger, it is usually possible to ascertain the reason(s) for their behaviour. Ruling out the slim possibility of a premeditated terror attack or hijack, unruly behaviour is most frequently caused by intoxication, frustration or fear. Knowing which of these conditions is the likely culprit enables our crew to better de-escalate the situation before physical intervention is required.
Unless one is dealing with a hijacker with terrorist intent, it is nearly always possible to attempt some kind of intervention to de-escalate tension with the offending passenger. Depending on the nature of the behaviour, various strategies may work – reassuring, calming, outlining rules and consequences and moving passengers to vacant seats can all help. While de-escalation is being attempted, plans should be put in place to prepare for the possibility of a physical intervention being required. All available personnel should be rallied, with the most confident crewmembers positioning themselves in closest proximity to the offender. If violence is clearly imminent, the rows of passengers close by should be cleared with special attention given to passengers with reduced mobility, the elderly, and children.
De-escalation Hasn’t Worked… Now What?
The decision to go ‘hands on’ with an unruly passenger is obviously one that cannot be taken lightly, and should only be considered if failing to do so will result in harm to persons or damage to critical equipment. It is important to understand that once a crewmember places their hands on the passenger, they become engaged in the restraint process, which must be seen through to the end. Actions taken must be quick, decisive, and fully committed to or else risk escalating the violence even further. So, what action should be taken?
“…George Floyd passed away after being pinned at the neck by a police officer’s knee for an extended period of time. Most distressing about this case was that Floyd did not appear to be resisting arrest and he told the officers many times that he could not breathe…”
Unfortunately, most airlines do not provide a level of training that could reasonably be expected to produce a crew skilled at physical restraint. It is unreasonable to expect any individual flight attendant to recall specific holds and pressure points from a half-day course they took three years ago while facing the threat of an adrenalin-charged unruly passenger seven miles above sea level.
Fancy joint locks and pressure points are unlikely to work with limited training, and will often be ineffective on drunk or drug-affected passengers. Further, screams of pain caused by these pain-compliance techniques are likely to further alarm fellow passengers.
“…the use of pressure point compliance techniques is rarely effective, despite being a hit in the classroom….”
The best we can hope for with limited training is that the crew involved will take a coordinated approach, with each controlling a limb of the offending passenger, prioritising the arms. In the absence of a professional restraint kit, effort should be made to get the subject into a prone position as, if simply seated, they can continue to punch, kick or bite. However, if a restraining device is available – typically steel handcuffs, flexicuffs, Velcro straps or, in many cases, cable ties – and the crew are appropriately trained, it is preferable to avoid taking the passenger down to the floor and to opt to restrain them in a seat. This negates the need to have to lift the passenger, which could cause injury to the crew, avoids blocking the aisle, makes it easier to observe and communicate with the passenger following the restraint, and looks more professional to other passengers.
Minimising Risk of Harm to the Subject
It is critical to understand that there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ restraint. Reams of literature have been written on the subject of restraining persons in the healthcare and law enforcement settings. These studies have identified a range of contributing factors that can result in injury or death to the person being restrained. While a full explanation of all of these factors is beyond the scope of this article, there are some that are very important to understand.
Risk Factors & Control Measures
Risk Factor 1:
Prone Restraint for Extended Periods
There is an identifiable link between subjects being restrained in a face-down position for extended periods and restraint-related death. However, restraining subjects in a supine (on their back) position requires a much greater degree of strength, encourages more struggle from the subject, and may exacerbate other risk factors for the subject, including the potential for rhabdomyolysis (severe muscular injury), restraint stress leading to heart failure, and blunt trauma caused from thrashing or striking. Tragically, on 25 May this year, we all witnessed the very public consequences of a prolonged restraint, which took place following an arrest in Minneapolis. George Floyd passed away after being pinned at the neck by a police officer’s knee for an extended period of time. Most distressing about this case was that Floyd did not appear to be resisting arrest and he told the officers many times that he could not breathe. This incident should serve as a warning to all that may engage in the restraint of passengers – only do what is necessary, and stop as soon as possible.
It is recommended that the subject is only restrained face-down on the floor for as long as is absolutely necessary. Once the subject is compliant, they should be moved to a seated position, if practical.
Risk Factor 2:
Restraint Stress Leading to Heart Failure
There is a clear link between a sudden, emotionally stressful event and heart failure. Being restrained by a number of people while flying at altitude fits the description of a suddenly stressful event.
Crewmembers should endeavour to remain calm during the restraint process, reassuring the subject that they are in no danger as long as they stop resisting and comply with instructions. If the crew can remove the subject’s fear, they dramatically decrease the chances of restraint stress leading to heart failure.
Risk Factor 3:
Positional asphyxiation most commonly occurs when the subject’s body becomes positioned in a way that impedes breathing, either due to restricting the movement of the chest wall and diaphragm or acute flexion of the neck, blocking the upper airway. This can occur when a subject is restrained in a tight space – such as between rows – or if the subject slides down a wall/seat, compressing the neck. This is a relatively common cause of death in acutely intoxicated individuals.
Crewmembers must ensure that, during a restraint, the subject’s neck is left in proper alignment and that the chest has room to expand allowing breathing to continue as normal. While the prone position with hands behind the back may carry greater risks for the subject (especially larger subjects who may lack sufficient shoulder flexibility) – again as we witnessed with the death of George Floyd – it should be noted that if handcuffs are being applied in isolation, rather than as part of a shackle system, cuffing the subject in front of their body does not in any way minimise risk to crew and other passengers. Indeed, it can exacerbate the risk as the subject can still use their hands to strike whilst bound together, and the handcuffs themselves can then cause additional injury to the passenger or crewmember.
Risk Factor 4:
Compressional asphyxiation occurs when weight is applied to the subject’s torso, impeding their ability to breathe. This is most common in the ‘pile on’ approach to subject control, whereby raw bodyweight is used as the controlling mechanism.
Crewmembers should ensure that, at no stage, weight is placed on the torso or throat of a subject. This will be most difficult to control should other passengers try to assist.
“…crush syndrome occurs when significant compression is applied to skeletal muscle causing the muscle to leak large amounts of potassium and leading to hyperkalaemia and rhabdomyolysis…”
Risk Factor 5:
Crush syndrome occurs when significant compression is applied to skeletal muscle, causing the muscle to leak large amounts of potassium and leading to hyperkalaemia and rhabdomyolysis. This is most likely to occur in restraints that continue over lengthy periods of time, where limbs are held in hyper-flexed positions, or where weight is applied to limbs –such as a person kneeling on the subject’s arm or legs.
“…the crew involved will take a coordinated approach, with each controlling a limb of the offending passenger, prioritising the arms…”
Avoid applying direct pressure to major muscle groups for extended periods of time. Cease restraint as soon as is practical. The use of non-purpose-built restraints such as belts and cable ties should be avoided, and replaced with restraints that are mechanically restricted from tightening beyond a desired point (such as handcuffs) or products that spread force over a larger surface area (such as most of the Velcro restraint systems on the market.)
Risk Factor 6:
A panicked and uncoordinated response to any situation by the crew will nearly always lead to unnecessary injury to those involved.
Crew must be properly trained and given the opportunity to refresh physical skills on a regular basis. Other passengers should be ordered not to get involved unless absolutely necessary. While it is beyond the scope of this article to advocate any one system of physical control training, it should be noted that the system chosen must be fit for purpose. That means the techniques and strategies must work when applied by the team, recognising the minimal amount of training customarily afforded to crewmembers, who may well be of slight physique, against someone who may well be intoxicated and adrenalised. As such, the use of pressure point compliance techniques is rarely effective, despite being a hit in the classroom. The training system chosen must be vigorously tested to ensure the safety of crew and minimise potential harm to all passengers.
Overview of Control Measures to Reduce Risk of Restraint Related Death
There are a few simple rules that cabin crew can follow to dramatically reduce the risk of a subject dying or suffering adverse health events during or after a restraint.
- Continue regular training so methods are constantly refreshed and well-practised;
- Cease the restraint process as soon as it is safe and practical to do so;
- Avoid placing weight on the subject’s torso and neck area;
- Remain calm and use technique rather than strength;
- Maintain communication with the subject throughout the restraint, ensuring they can breathe; and,
- Attempt de-escalation so that the subject may be returned to a secure seated position.
It is not the intention of this article to explore the various types of shackles, handcuffs and restraint kits currently on the market. However, all crewmembers must be thoroughly trained in the use of whichever kit is used by their airline. The risk posed to crew, subjects and innocent passengers when equipment is incorrectly used, used for too long or – worse – when restraints are improvised from belts or garments cannot be overstated.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers when it comes to managing the risks involved in restraining unruly passengers. Every decision made carries potential benefits and potential harm. Acting early may achieve the safest result, or may needlessly escalate a situation that could have been defused. The use of mechanical restraints may increase crew safety but also cause injury to the passenger. Diverting an aircraft may be the right thing to do for safety, but causes considerable financial losses and upsets customers. None of these decisions should be made lightly, but as with any exercise in risk management, we need to prepare our people to make the best decisions they can in the time available to make them.
“…the risk posed to crew, subjects and innocent passengers when equipment is incorrectly used, used for too long or – worse – when restraints are improvised from belts or garments cannot be overstated…”
Violence in any workplace is complex and unacceptable, but infinitely more so when it happens in the skies. Employers must take their duty of care to their staff seriously and provide thorough training to ensure crews are adequately prepared to mitigate this known risk. The safety of our passengers and our employees – our most valuable assets – depends on it.
Joe Saunders is the National Practice Lead – Occupational Violence and Aggression for Risk 2 Solution, based in Melbourne, Australia. He combines 15 years of experience in all areas of private security with recognised subject-matter expertise in the management of violence. He is the host of the Managing Violence Podcast and the Presilience Podcast.