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Airline safety and restraint of passengers

Censored ManThe safety of passengers and staff during travel is a key consideration for airlines and tour operators, and the recently published first edition of the Guidance on Unruly Passenger Prevention and Management by the International Air Travel Association (IATA) provides guidance to airlines on how to prevent and deal with unruly or disruptive passengers. Safety in the air is becoming more of a concern to the travel industry and to fellow passengers, and it is important for airlines and tour operators to be aware of what the risks are and what action they are allowed to take during flights to maintain the safety of their passengers and crew.

Passengers often view their flights to and from their destination as an extension of their trip. Alcohol is frequently consumed, and excessive drinking is a major factor in the disruptive behaviour by travellers. Drunk or disruptive passengers can cause a nightmare for both airline staff and passengers alike. Airline staff are aware that they can restrain passengers for the safety of others but it is not always clear what the rules are and how far they can go.

A photo of a passenger restrained in his seat with plastic ties and tape has appeared recently on various social media, reportedly after an incident where he hit, screamed and spat at other passengers during a flight. He was restrained and gagged by crew and passengers during the flight and was arrested on his arrival at the destination airport. Another recently reported incident involved the fellow passengers restraining a man during the flight with their belts. He had been warned by the crew but the passengers took action to restrain him themselves.

These incidents have concerned tour operators and airlines, especially in the wake of the awful terrorist attacks of 9/11 and subsequent attempts on other flights. Most airlines carry restraint kits on their flights to deal with unruly passengers, and airline staff should be given proper training on how to deal with these passengers. A verbal warning should be given first and if that doesn’t work, the plane’s captain should be consulted. Staff should make accurate records of what was said and done and the reasons for any restraints. Staff can request assistance from passengers if necessary. Restraint should be used as a last resort however, and airlines and their crew should be careful not to go beyond the levels of restraint and unreasonably cause injury, which could lead to a claim and possible damages. Restraints and excessive gagging can cause injury and even death if used improperly or too harshly.

The international laws governing the restraint of passengers during flights are mainly covered in the Tokyo Convention (1963) and the Montreal Convention (1971). The Tokyo Convention stresses that the captain of the plane in charge of the safety of the flight and therefore will decide whether a passenger needs to be restrained. The plane’s destination country’s authorities should be notified before landing that there is a person being held under restraint and why they are being restrained. The Montreal Convention governs international air travel and imposes stricter liabilities on airlines and tour operators for injuries caused. It provides the basis for claims for damages by passengers.

Aside from these international conventions, passenger’s behaviour is also subject to the laws of the country in which the plane is registered. Airlines, tour operators and staff should ensure they are aware of the national laws of that country and what they can and cannot do.

Unruly passengers should be mindful that their dangerous or disruptive behaviour will be reported to the UK police and to the plane’s destination authorities, which can lead to a prosecution and a criminal conviction. Following from this an airline or tour operator can make a civil claim against the unruly passenger to recover their costs, such as additional fuel charges, landing charges and other expenses, that were incurred as a result of their disruptive behaviour.

The Guidance on Unruly Passenger Prevention and Management published by IATA in December 2012 provides helpful assistance on both the prevention and handling of incidents. It ‘provides practical steps that an air carrier can take to prevent and manage unruly passenger incidents which could contribute to increased safety and costs reduction’.

IATA’s Guidance On Unruly Passenger Prevention And Management

For more information or advice please contact our Travel Department.