Dubai: The world’s airlines are in need of more pilots and cabin crew. And even as they are tested and trained on the latest flight systems, the crew are required to pick up one other set of skills – handling possible ‘air rage’ situations.
The big Gulf airlines such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways have a sky marshal accompanying the crew on long-haul flights. "The sky marshals oversee security and ensure no lapses and skirmishes occur on these flights,” said Capt. Shahinsha Khan, Chief Flight Instructor at a pilot training school in India. “But many international carriers don't always have sky marshals, which increases the risk."
Since the start of the post-Covid travel boom, there have been more instances of disturbing behaviour on the part of passengers. The most recent one took place on a London-bound Air India flight, and which prompted India's civil aviation watchdog DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) to issue a stern warning to all airlines to crack down on such conduct during flights. (A violent mid-air altercation forced the Air India flight to return to Delhi airport.)
The consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimates that despite efforts to close the gap, airlines will face shortage of nearly 30,000 pilots by 2032. According to Federal Aviation Administration in the US, airlines have reported around 2,300 disruptive passengers in 2022 alone. And 63 passengers were placed on the Indian Civil Aviation Ministry's no-fly list.
UAE rules on passenger behaviour
According to Bilal Tahboub, co-founder at Dynamics Advanced Training based in Dubai South, dealing with unruly passengers falls under the UAE's 'aviation security training' for pilots and cabin crew. Aviation crews in the Middle East are trained at length on these matters. Dynamics Advanced Training follows protocols set by UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).
According to Tahboub, "Whichever behaviours are being displayed, it must always be the priority to resolve the situation peacefully through a verbal warning. However, suppose all disruptive/unruly behaviour management attempts have failed verbally. In that case, the Captain should issue a formal written warning to the passenger, as this is considered a legal document approved by the authorities. Three warnings are first given to the passenger, according to ICAO and GCAA's regulations. If the passenger fails to comply or persists with their unruly behaviour, they can be handcuffed with the Captain's permission."
The passenger must remain in the seat, restrained, until security personnel or police take them off after landing unless there is an emergency. In this case, the release tool must be used to cut the leg cuffs and handcuffs during the cabin preparation phase of a planned emergency landing unless the Captain instructs otherwise. In a severe medical emergency, the passenger must be released immediately and provided with medical attention.
While these are the approved protocols for dealing with disruptive passengers, the reality of in-flight tends to be subjective. "In some cases, if the cabin crew requires it, they can ask other passengers on the flight for support with the disruptive person," said Tahboub. "For example, the crew can ask able-bodied passengers if they have had any training in the paramilitary or with security services."
What can be done to mitigate air rage?
- Airlines must limit serving certain types of beverages in-flight.
- Cabin crew must have intensive familiarizing of procedures to deal with unruly passengers.
- Airlines must take strict action against unruly passengers, such as placing offenders on temporary or permanent no-fly lists, depending on their offences.
Tahboub said: "Creating strong policies that safeguard all parties are of utmost importance.”
Cabin crew need intensive training
While severe disruptive behaviour from passengers is still a rarity – and every flier is or should be aware of the consequences – any incident can be costly for airlines and causes delays. Some flight instructors reckon that these skirmishes are becoming more frequent due to shorter training periods to meet the high demand for pilots and cabin crew.
"While most aviation watchdogs such as the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security in India have a module to deal with unruly passengers, the new crew members are only familiarised with the learning program,” said Khan. “They don't go through intensive training."
DGCA's prompt action following the incident on the Air India London-Delhi flight is an improvement in the larger scheme. However, much more must be done to ensure these instances don't keep repeating. The Tata Group is trying to change Air India's flavour, but bringing a new system into place will take more time. And staff shortage in the aviation sector is a reality that needs to be addressed immediately.
"That needs to change. From familiarising cabin crew on procedures to dealing with unruly passengers, they must undergo more intensive training."
The advent of social media bought more such cases under the public spotlight as co-passengers shoot videos of these incidents on their smartphones and share them online.
Recent in-flight skirmishes
- April 10, 2023: Delhi Police detained an 'unruly' passenger after he was de-boarded by Air India from its Delhi-London flight.
- January 31, 2023: A 45-year-old Italian woman allegedly punched a cabin crew member and spat on another on a Mumbai-bound Vistara flight.
- November 26, 2022: Shankar Mishra was arrested for allegedly urinating on a fellow passenger on board an Air India flight New York to Delhi. The Delhi Police arrested him on January 6 this year.
- November 13, 2022: A United Airlines flight attendant was sent to the hospital following an altercation with a passenger on a flight to Chicago.
- October 6, 2022: A passenger was accused of hitting a flight attendant in the back with a crutch on a Darwin-to-Sydney flight.
- September 22, 2022: A man punched a flight attendant in the back of the head on an American Airlines Flight from Mexico to Los Angeles.
- February 4, 2022: Delta removed two passengers from a flight at a Florida airport after one cursed at flight attendants.