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Fight Club in the Skies!

By – Ramesh Vaidyanathan & Mansi Singh

The recent incidents of unruly passenger behaviour are of great concern to the Indian aviation community. The aviation regulator (Director General of Civil Aviation or DGCA) has pulled up the concerned airlines for their failure to act against unruly passengers, something the regulator perceives has “tarnished the image of air travel”. DGCA has asked that restraining devices be used if passengers do not behave themselves after due warning.

This came in the aftermath of two incidents of passenger misbehavior on Air India flights in December 2022. One passenger was caught smoking in the lavatory, was drunk and was not following crew instructions. Another passenger allegedly relieved himself on a co-passenger in an inebriated condition. After a huge media outcry over this latest incident, Air India was fined INR 30 lakhs (~ USD 37,000) for its apparent failure to take prompt action, and the license of the pilot-in-charge has been suspended for three months. A flying ban of 4 months has been imposed on the passenger.

There is a growing concern from airlines, governments and passengers at the increasing frequency and severity of these incidents. Unruly passengers threaten the safety of the aircraft and that of other passengers/crew, apart from causing delays and diversions in certain cases. A few years ago, a Qatar Airways plane was forced to land midflight after a woman managed to use her sleeping husband’s thumb to unlock his smartphone and discovered he was having an affair. The woman repeatedly hit her husband after learning of his infidelity and the captain was forced to make an unscheduled stop in Chennai (India) as the cabin crew was unable to restore order. In another case, India-bound Air Canada flight was diverted back to Toronto after a man assaulted a flight attendant. These are just a few examples of the many incidents of mid-air rage. Once airlines resumed operations post the pandemic, increased incidents of unruly passengers started surfacing again as flight crew were forced to ensure strict compliance with the mask mandate and unruly passengers expressed their dismay over mask mandates and other frustrations such as the suspension of free meals and drinks.

Not just an Indian phenomenon

Creating ruckus mid-air can result in fines, flight ban, criminal charges and jail time. It can also lead to job terminations and deportations. Aviation regulators across the world have stringent penalties for unruly passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has listed around 2,350 reports of unruly passengers in 2022, with around 825 investigations initiated. This is the second-highest number of investigations in at least a decade. In 2022, the FAA reportedly fined a pair of unruly passengers more than USD 159,000 — the largest-ever penalty for bad behavior on a flight. The UK’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, also prescribes hefty fines and imprisonment for unruly behavior and endangering the safety of an aircraft.

2017 Guidelines

DGCA released guidelines in 2017 on dealing with unruly passengers, after a then Member of Parliament assaulted an Air India staff member. As per the guidelines, the captain and the crew of a flight are supposed to inform the airline about a passenger’s unruly behavior once the aircraft lands at its destination airport. The airline will present the case before its Internal Committee that comprises a retired district and session judge and two independent members. Until the Internal Committee decides, the concerned airline may ban the passenger from flying for a period not exceeding 30 days. The Internal Committee shall give the final decision in 30 days and it shall be binding on the airline.

The rules grade offences into three categories and once the Internal Committee decides the level of offence and imposes a ban on the passenger, the decision has to be communicated to the DGCA/other airlines and the person should be put on the ‘no-fly’ list. Such a passenger can be banned for a period that may vary from upto 3 months for a level 1 offence to a lifetime ban for a level 3 offence.

Prevention must be a priority and de-escalation a back-up

The best management and mitigation strategy for unruly passenger events is prevention through early detection, intervention and resolution.

Governments should raise public awareness of the consequences of failure to follow crew instructions. Airlines should develop training for ground and cabin crew that focus on prevention and management including conflict de-escalation techniques and responsible service of alcohol. Airlines should communicate to the passengers the consequences of unruly behavior. Passengers and cabin crew members have the right to a safe flight, free of violence and other behaviour that might put them at risk. Travelling should be an enjoyable experience where passengers treat each other and the cabin crew with the respect that they deserve.

Safe travels!


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