Between 2007 and 2016, over 58,000 unruly passenger incidents were reported on International aircraft in-flight by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). In 2016, the rate was one incident for every 1.424 flights. The majority of reports were Level 1 incidents which are verbal in nature and can usually be dealt with to a successful conclusion by crew using de-escalation training. 12% of reports relate to Level 2 incidents which involve physical aggression to others or damage to the aircraft. Intoxication from alcohol or drugs was identified as a factor in 33% of reported cases. Unruly passenger incidents include violence against crew and other passengers, harassment, verbal abuse, smoking, failure to follow safety instructions and other forms of riotous behavior. Recently, a woman was removed from a Frontier Airlines flight when she attempted to fly with her “emotional support” squirrel and then refused to get off the plane when she was told rodents, including squirrels, are not allowed on Frontier flights. Frontier, like many airlines, has a policy on emotional support and trained service animals allowing cats, dogs and miniature horses. Federal regulations do permit them on airplanes but give the airlines permission to turn away unusual animals, like squirrels. The passenger was advised of the policy and asked to deplane, but when she declined, other passengers were forced to deplane so that authorities could remove the woman from the aircraft.
Although such acts are committed by a tiny minority of passengers, they have a disproportionate impact, create inconvenience, threaten the safety and security of other passengers and crew, and lead to significant operational disruption and costs for airlines. The aircraft cabin is a unique space and it is necessary to recognize the limitations that exist when you are flying in the air in a metal tub. As a result, these sorts of in-flight disturbances frequently result in law enforcement officers becoming involved.
One of the likely reasons for the increasing reports of disruptive passengers is the existence of a gap in international law and the fact that many countries don’t apply their laws to foreign aircraft arriving on their soil. Passenger behavior is subject to the law of the country the plane is registered in. The passengers responsible often walk away and victims of violence can’t always take practical legal actions. Yet, American Federal law bans passengers from interfering with flight crew. Also, certain acts which would be punishable if they occurred in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, defined in 18 U.S.C. § 7, are made criminal under 49 U.S.C. § 46506(1) (formerly 49 U.S.C. App. § 1472(k)(1)) if they occur within the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States.