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Billion-dollar problem: Airlines draw the line on unruly passengers

The Age, 9 June 2014

In ball park figures, it has become a billion-dollar problem: that’s roughly the annual cost of the disruption of airline flights by unruly passengers of which many reading this blog, I suspect, have experience. When you consider that it’s only one in every 40 million people getting on a plane who is the problem, it doesn’t sound major, but, with more than three billion of the earth’s seven billion inhabitants statistically now using air travel annually, it has introduced a whole new set of circumstances in which people masses of people can misbehave: being stuffed into small seats in a vibrating metal tube spearing through the air at 800 kilometres an hour, while being served food and alcoholic drinks.

After being fed through the airport apparatus with its customs queues and security lines, while keeping track of personal documents and hang luggage, almost all of us suffer the experience with benign acceptance.

But last year, 8217 miscreants turned it into a nightmare for the people around them, up from 5220 the year before. Since 2010, there are said to have been more than 20,000 such incidents ranging from physical assault to failing to follow crew instructions consumption of illegal narcotics, sexual harassment and physical or verbal confrontation or threats.

The airlines have finally had enough – simply because of the amount of money it is costing them. Each incident can quickly snowball into a financial disaster costing more than $US200,000 if a flight has to be diverted, accommodation found for passengers and, in some cases, replacement crews flown in.

Yet the airlines are hamstrung in their ability to recover costs from offenders, so earlier this year the International Civil Aviation Organisation passed what it terms the the 2014 Montreal Protocol (so named for the city in which ICAO is headquartered), which the International Air Transport Association, representing 240 of the world’s airlines, last week moved forward as a blueprint for governments to follow to get the problem of unruly passengers under control.

The IATA plan’s focus is to have airport staff monitor passengers for intoxication and/or volatility from check-in to security and give airport waiting staff more power to refuse service.

It wants to extend the right to prosecute offences in the flight’s destination country. The current, outdated rules assign jurisdiction to the country where the aircraft is registered. These days, airlines commonly lease planes, so an aircraft may be registered in a country it never flies to. That creates a loophole for misbehaving travellers.

“There are so many cases where people do egregious things,” IATA CEO Tony Tyler, who used to run Cathay Pacific Airways, told US television. “Police might come and detain them when they arrive, but in most cases they go (free).”

In one example cited at last week’s conference, a male passenger on an Icelandair flight, after consuming a large quantity of spirits, got so drunk and out of control, the flight crew used duct tape to restrain him. He allegedly grabbed women, choked other passengers, and spat on people, but was never prosecuted.

According to IATA, intoxication, often resulting from alcohol already consumed before boarding, ranks high among factors linked to these incidents. Other causes include irritation with another passenger’s behavior, frustration with rules such as smoking prohibitions or use of electronic devices or emotional triggers originating prior to flight.

“Everybody on board is entitled to enjoy a journey free from abusive or other unacceptable behaviour,” Tyler says. “Many airlines have trained both ground staff and cabin crew in procedures not only to manage incidents of unruly behavior but also in measures to prevent them. But a robust solution needs alignment among airlines, airports, and governments.”

I fear that, in calling for a united approach by governments and airlines, IATA is setting a high bar that will never be cleared and the problem will continue to be the subject of hand-wringing at talkfests for years to come.

At least Australia is being aggressive in bringing prosecutions against offenders.

But, as long as trouble-makers know that there’s a chance they may escape the consequences of their actions because of poorly designed or unenforced rules in international airspace, I can’t see this year’s incident count coming in at less than 10,000.

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