Iata says unruly passengers “have become a significant problem” and the issue is growing. Ian Taylor reports

The airline association recorded more than 38,000 incidents of passenger misbehaviour on flights in the seven years to 2014, with more than one in six requiring intervention by police.

In 2014, that meant disruption to one in 1,289 flights. That may not sound much but Iata notes: “Incidents can threaten the safety of all on board, inconvenience other passengers and lead to significant operational disruption and costs.”

Delays due to unruly passengers have not yet led to compensation payouts to other passengers, but aviation lawyer Joanna Kolatsis, a partner at Hill Dickinson, fears that could just be a matter of time.

She told a Hill Dickinson seminar: “We’re concerned at the way the trend is going. We fear it will not be long before delays due to unruly passengers are no longer deemed ‘extraordinary circumstances’.”

Tim Colehan, Iata assistant director of government and industry affairs, told the seminar: “Iata airlines will carry 3.7 billion passengers this year. We’re talking about a small proportion of passengers. The problem is they have a disproportionate impact.”

He said: “The Iata figures are unrepresentative of the problem. We know by talking to carriers that they have many more incidents.”

But there is a problem in taking action against the minority who cause problems. Colehan said: “In 60% of cases where an airline tries to bring a prosecution there is no [clear] jurisdiction. The police say they can’t do anything. Cases are not seen as in the public interest, so all but the most severe are lost.”

Iata and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) are trying to get governments to take the issue more seriously following adoption of the Montreal Protocol of 2014 which, once ratified would enable cross-border prosecutions.

“The problem is it’s not high on the agenda,” said Colehan.

“So we’re trying to see if there are other sanctions to reinforce deterrence so we can avoid crew having to deal with problems at 30,000 feet. There isn’t a magic bullet. We need a balance of enforcement and deterrence.”

He added: “There is good enforcement in the UK. But if an airline lands, say, in Bangkok, what can the authorities do?

“This is not limited to low‑cost flights or to charters or to economy cabins.”

Monarch adopts zero tolerance to drunken fliers

Monarch is among airlines to have adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards unruly passengers.

Group claims manager Hayley Kiely told the Hill Dickinson seminar: “Our figures for passenger disruption are down year on year, but the incidents are worse – requiring the use of restraint kits, involving violence between groups of passengers or between passengers and crew.

“We have a duty to our crew to feel safe at 30,000 feet. We also have a brand damage issue. We don’t want future passengers reading in the paper that there has been disruption.”

Kiely said: “Stag and hen groups drinking at airports play a big part.” When Monarch recently offloaded a groom and his party of 30, she said: “We had a lot of feedback saying: ‘Finally an airline is taking a stand’.”

The carrier seeks to pre‑empt trouble on some flights by sending a pre-departure email to passengers and liaises with police at airports.

Kiely said: “Our crew are empowered to operate alcohol‑free flights, but it’s not alcohol on board that is the issue – it is the alcohol consumed before or bought at the airport. We’re reliant on ground-handling agents, bar staff and duty-free staff to inform us [of any problem].”