Unruly passengers were a problem before the pandemic - now they're even worse

File photo of people on a passenger plane.
Photo credit: Getty Images

Passenger Philip Baum recently experienced one of the most uncomfortable flights of his life.

To Baum, it was obvious his seatmate, a stranger, was drunk. Flight crew, he says, "denied him alcohol."

"But in front of me, he managed to sneak more alcohol off the trolley," Baum recalls.

For Baum, who was seated in the economy cabin, being in such close proximity to the "unruly" passenger for multiple hours wasn't pleasant.

"I actually thought I'd throw up," he tells CNN Travel. "The guy pulled out his nails. He was bleeding. He stank, and he was blind drunk."

Moreover, Baum was worried the passenger, who didn't seem fully in control, "was going to completely lose it" at any moment.

"In the end, I spent about four hours talking to him and calming him down," Baum recalls.

Throughout the flight, Baum felt himself working hard to control his own reaction to the situation. He felt, at several points, on the precipice of giving in to his own anger and frustration.

"The only reason I didn't become unruly was because I thought, 'Philip, you know better. You can't suddenly become unruly,'" he says.

Baum is an aviation security expert, the founder of DISPAX World, the international conference on Unruly Airline Passenger Management and Restraint.

Given his background, Baum found himself wondering - only half-jokingly - whether the whole incident was some kind of "test."

Pre-pandemic, statistics recorded by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) indicated unruly airplane passengers were on the rise. Discussions about the issue were ramping up, with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) launching its #notonmyflight initiative in 2019, aiming to increase passenger awareness.

During the peak Covid years, fewer flights didn't equal fewer problems - at least not in the US, where reported incidents ballooned. In early 2021, Federal Aviation Authority data reached what an FAA spokesperson tells CNN Travel was "record highs," with many altercations based around the then-mandated face mask rule. As American flight attendant Susannah Carr told CNN Travel that year: "I come in expecting to have a passenger that could potentially get violent."

Reported incidents in the US have since fallen, but remain notably higher than pre-pandemic levels. IATA and FAA data can only tell us so much (not every airline that's part of IATA submits data, while not every airline records every instance of unruly behaviour) but the conversation around disruptive passengers remains heated.

As incidents regularly hit the headlines (including passengers sliding down the evacuation slide, hitting and biting flight attendants and forcing aircraft to divert from their intended destination, to name but a few) aviation authorities are clamping down, flight attendants are speaking up and aviation experts are questioning how we got here, and whether we can change the tide.

Levels of unruliness

IATA classifies unruly behaviour incidents into four levels. Level 1 is "minor" (IATA's "Cabin Operations Safety Best Practice Manual" suggests this could be argumentative behaviour or non-compliance with safety regulations). Level 2 is "moderate" (physically aggressive behaviour, for example). Level 3 is "serious" (i.e. dangerous behaviour, an "intent or threat to injure," as IATA puts it). Level 4 is "flight deck breach" (which IATA classifies as "credible threat of death).

The latest available IATA data, from 2022, indicates most disruptive passenger incidents involved non-compliance, verbal abuse and intoxication. These incidents are less extreme, but are still seen as potentially detrimental to flight safety.

In a 2023 document called "Even safer and more enjoyable air travel for all: A strategy for reducing unruly and disruptive passenger incidents," IATA states that while "only a tiny minority" of passengers behave badly, these travellers "have a disproportionate impact."

Incidents could "threaten the safety and security of the aircraft, other passengers, and crew," says IATA. There's also the mental health impact on crew and passengers, and increased likelihood of inconvenient diversions, delays or cancellations.

Unruly passengers, "can compromise the ability for cabin crew to undertake their safety duties," former flight attendant Liz Simmons, who flew for 17 years, tells CNN Travel.

Simmons, who is Australian, is now working on a PhD examining the physical and psychosocial well-being of cabin crew in Oceania, and how that intersects with performance and safety behaviours.

Simmons says disruptive passenger incidents can cause "physical, emotional or psychological injury," for flight attendants and other passengers alike.

The impact of the pandemic

Of the 5981 unruly passenger incidents reported to the FAA in 2021, 4290 were face mask-related.

It's not surprising then, that as the pandemic waned and mask mandates were lifted, aviation workers and officials alike assumed the situation would improve.

European flight attendant Kris Major, who sits in groups within the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recalls conversations about pandemic bad behaviour being "kind of a blip" and assumptions that they'd quickly be a "bounceback."

Short answer, there wasn't. The pandemic, as former Japan Airlines flight attendant Mizuki Urano puts it, was a "turning point."

John Franklin, head of safety promotion at EASA, tells CNN Travel he believes the uptick in unruly passenger behaviour correlates with a more general societal behaviour shift that's taken place in the last couple of years.

"It has become clear that the increase in unruly passenger behaviour matches what police see in general society since the Covid pandemic," says Franklin, who says EASA's been discussing the rise of disruptive behaviour with European law enforcement.

People behaving badly in public spaces is a conversation that's taken place beyond the aviation industry. In the UK, for example, there's been an increase in what performing arts union Bectu calls "extreme anti-social behaviour" among theatre goers. Meanwhile, 2023 saw a slew of reports of tourists behaving badly across the globe - damaging heritage sites, eating endangered species and stealing.

Aviation psychologist Aleksandra Kapela posits that "prolonged online work and limited social interactions" might have impacted our "comfort levels in close spaces, such as airplanes."

Kapela also attributes the increase in unruly passenger behaviour to some "now viewing travel as both a right and a privilege after enduring uncertainty and restrictions."

That outlook brings "heightened expectations to their journeys," Kapela tells CNN Travel.

Anti-social behaviour has negative impacts in any setting, but as IATA notes, "behaviours which some people may deem to be acceptable on the ground take on a completely different complexion in the confines of an aircraft traveling at 500 miles per hour six miles above the ground."

The depersonalization of travel

During the pandemic years, airlines and airports furloughed staff. Many didn't return. Then, when international air travel started to ramp up, restaffing quickly proved tricky.

It's a vicious circle, suggests flight attendant Kris Major. Staffing issues, he says, are behind several general issues with the aviation industry right now - "flight delays, cancellations" - and such problems can also be the source of passenger tension and lead to unruly incidents.

Fewer staff, says Major, also means less "vigilance in the terminals" - meaning it's harder for ground crews to spot and weed out a potential disruptive passenger.

Newly hired staff and cabin crew also bring less experience to the table. Former flight attendant Simmons suggests that no matter how good training might be, experience is often integral in handling unruly passenger incidents.

And while practical training - on how to restrain passengers, for example, and self defence - is mandatory for flight attendants, Simmons says "emotional intelligence" is one of the key skills needed by cabin crew.

Human skills are part of the training programs, but they're often honed on the job.

"Time and exposure makes for a better diffuser," she says. "We're trained on the ground, but then you go into the air and everything you encounter on a daily basis could be considered on the job training as well."

In recent years, airlines and airports have also increasingly relied on automated processes - think self check-in, automated gates. DISPAX World organizer Philip Baum says automation "dehumanizes the whole experience" of flying.

Passengers may not directly interact face-to-face with another person until they're at the gate or boarding the aircraft. When they finally do, air rage hits.

"The passenger could be carrying all types of grievances about the booking process, the security screening - something may have happened in their life - and it's just that buildup of anxiety and anger that compounds with other issues," says Simmons.

Mental health impact on cabin crew

Bearing the brunt of disruptive passenger incidents places "a significant emotional burden" on cabin crew, as aviation psychologist Kapela puts it.

"Their already demanding job, focused on ensuring safety, becomes even more challenging when dealing with disruptive passengers."

There's also a knock-on impact on other passengers, who could follow in the disruptive passenger's footsteps - a potential that crossed Philip Baum's mind when he was seated next to a drunk passenger and actively worked to control his own frustrations.

There's also the potential physical and emotional threat to aviation workers - as evidenced in the news reports of flight attendants at the receiving end of violence - and other passengers.

At the 2023 iteration of DISPAX World - Baum's conference on unruly passenger behaviour - presenter Polly Hilmarsdóttir, from Icelandair, said the airline's ground staff are instructed, when they encounter an unruly passenger, to consider the question "Would you be happy for this passenger to sit next to a child you care about?" If the answer is 'no', Icelandair staff are instructed to deny boarding.

Daniela Modonesi, who works at an Italian airport and who is chair of the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF)'s Ground Staff Committee, agrees ground staff have an important role to play. She adds that disruptive passenger-related issues are also prevalent on the ground and can cause knock-on effects.

"If (passengers are) in a line with somebody screaming, they don't want to go on board with this person," Modonesi tells CNN Travel.

Unruly passengers also lead to attrition across the aviation industry, says Modonesi. She regularly sees fellow ground staff leaving work, crying, following interactions with aggressive passengers. Often they hand in their notice not long after.

"You start thinking, 'Why should I do this? I could change jobs so that this goes away,'" says Modonesi.

Prosecution and punishment

Disruptive behaviour at 30,000 feet isn't without consequences.

An FAA representative told CNN Travel they review every unruly passenger report received from airlines. The FAA will investigate further when they believe a passenger "may have violated a regulation or federal law."

Unruly passengers in the US face fines of up to US$37,000 per incident, as well as criminal prosecution.

"While we do not have criminal prosecution authority, the FAA is working closely with the FBI and TSA to ensure unruly passengers face additional punishments when warranted," the FAA spokesperson told CNN Travel.

Airlines can also choose to place disruptive travellers on internal no-fly lists. These may be shared with partner airlines - for example, Dutch airline KLM shares this data with its low cost sister airline Transavia, and passengers are banned from flying with either airline for a minimum of five years if they misbehave on a Transavia or KLM flight.

However, penalizing disruptive passengers - particularly on international flights - can be complicated. Under existing international law (the Tokyo Convention 1963), offenses committed on board an aircraft are under the jurisdiction of the authorities in the state in which the aircraft is registered.

Essentially it's "quite a legal minefield," as flight attendant Major puts it.

The Montreal Protocol 2014 seeks to get around this issue by enabling prosecution in the state where the airplane lands, but not every nation has ratified this protocol.

Awareness campaigns

The FAA uses the threat of steep fines in its digital signage and public service announcements - which aim to clamp down on disruptive passengers.

The FAA's also created social media memes, with the FAA spokesperson pointing CNN Travel to one made especially for Halloween 2023, depicting a "police officer and unruly passenger" couple's costume.

In Europe, EASA's Not on my Flight Campaign also draws attention to the safety implications of people behaving badly on board via online advertisements.

Baum is sceptical about the potential positive impact of these campaigns.

"If you are a potentially unruly passenger, do you really not become unruly because you saw some zero tolerance unruly behaviour video?" he questions.

Instead, Baum thinks the focus should be on the aviation industry's approach to alcohol - which can be free flowing in the airport and on the plane and is often cited as a factor in unruly passenger incidents - and as a general threat to cabin safety. IATA says it's working with airports and duty-free retailers to encourage responsible sales and marketing of alcohol, as often it's the alcohol consumed prior to the flight that causes issues on board.

Former flight attendant Simmons thinks the FAA memes are effective - "visual images are such a powerful tool," she says. But Simmons suggests there should also be reminders within the airport. Preboarding announcements that "crew are there for safety, first and foremost, and they're not there as an outlet for aggression" could also be helpful, she says.

Simmons also encourages airlines and airports emphasizing cabin crew's role as safety professionals.

"The way that flight attendants are represented in advertising, or onboard safety demonstrations sends a very powerful message to passengers," she says.

Aviation psychologist Kapela agrees that "pre-flight education" is key, suggesting "ensuring passengers get why safety measures are in place, the important role of cabin crew, and the reasons behind actions like fastening seatbelts or delays can clear up misunderstandings."

EASA's Franklin says it's still too early to know if there will be a sea change in 2024 - not all data is yet available from 2023, for one.

He says EASA hopes "to see a reduction, particularly in events involving physical violence" and believes the industry will get there "through proactive passenger behaviour management that deals with situations early before they escalate."

So far in 2024, the problem doesn't seem to have gone anywhere. In January, an American passenger bit an All Nippon Airways (ANA) flight attendant, forcing the plane to return to Tokyo, and an American Airlines flight was diverted to a Texas airport mid-flight after a passenger punched a flight attendant multiple times and assaulted at least one police officer.

"We've got a problem," says Philip Baum, who fears that "one day there will be a disaster because of an unruly passenger incident."

"At the moment, I feel we've been incredibly lucky that an aircraft has not been brought down because of unruly behaviour in the skies."