There are certain protocols that you should follow if you come across someone disrupting a flight.
In-flight disruptions caused by passengers often make headlines. These incidents range from attacks on flight attendants to arguments over crying babies to outright threats against the plane.
“Air travel is a stressful experience,” said Zach Griff, a senior reporter at The Points Guy. “From queues at the check-in counters to strict security checks and frequent flight delays, tensions at the airport are often high, especially for first-time flyers. And once travelers are crammed into metal tubes, these stressors can lead to downright meltdowns.”
Although in-flight disruptions are still generally rare, their frequency appears to have increased in recent years.
“Social and political issues always come up on our planes,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union. “The pandemic has brought to light massive inequality and suffering. It has affected every single human being in one way or another. We took a break from being with loved ones, not to mention the bevy of strangers of all ages and backgrounds. In some cases we forgot how to be together – in other cases the stress piled up and spread infrequently on the evening news.”
The Federal Aviation Administration is reporting four incidents of unruly passengers per 10,000 flights — a decrease from previous years’ data but an increase from pre-pandemic levels. Globally, the International Air Transport Association just released a report showing that the number of such incidents actually increased in 2022 compared to 2021.
With the sharpening divisions, lack of trust, and general fear and uncertainty many people are feeling in 2023, it’s not surprising that some feel the worst during air travel.
“Even with pandemic-related travel restrictions generally behind us, air travel is more stressful than ever,” Griff said. “Combined with a higher proportion of infrequent travelers taking to the skies, this is likely in part responsible for the increase in recalcitrant passenger incidents.”
What to do when you’re next to an unruly passenger?
“If you’re sitting next to someone who’s behaving erratically, you should practice de-escalation tactics,” Griff said. “Don’t do anything to further incite the recalcitrant passenger.”
De-escalation tactics can include responding in a calm, collected voice when the person is speaking to you. Don’t respond to a fellow traveler’s anger, instead consider paraphrasing what was said to show they’re being listened to. To end an awkward conversation, you may manage to put on headphones or earplugs and an eye mask, like you’re about to go to sleep.
Should the situation continue to be disruptive, remember that flight attendants are on board to assist.
“First, in a spirit of solidarity, go to the airport and when boarding a plane, put your phone away for a moment to make eye contact with flight attendants,” Nelson said. “Flight attendants are trained in de-escalation. We don’t hear about the 99% of potential incidents that are resolved by aviation first responders every day.”
Don’t try to take drastic action and seek professional help instead – preferably out of earshot of the offending passenger.
“If possible, get out of your seat — perhaps using the pretense that you need to use the restroom — and speak to a flight attendant in the galley to explain the situation,” Griff said. “The flight crew is trained to deal with such situations. Don’t take matters into your own hands.”
Nelson echoed this advice, urging passengers to voice their concerns to a flight attendant but then step aside.
“Unless you or someone close to you is in immediate danger, please wait for flight attendant instructions,” she said. “Some well-meaning passengers may unintentionally escalate a situation. Be a good witness and a helpful helper. If prompted, assist the flight attendants in dealing with the offending passenger.”
The union leader also called for decisive action following the serious and violent in-flight unrest.
“Clear consequences are critical to preventing bad behavior,” Nelson said. “We appreciate that [Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Safety Administration and Department of Justice] for cooperation to ensure expeditious investigation, prosecution and enforcement of fines and/or imprisonment.”
She also called on Congress to pass the Abusive Passenger Protection Act, which would create a centralized list of banned air passengers that would be maintained by the TSA.
“The worst offenders should also lose their freedom to flee,” Nelson said. “If passengers misbehave on one airline, they should not be allowed to simply buy a ticket on another airline.”