Airline Crews Battle Surge in Drunken Passenger Assaults

The arrest this week of Ralph Lauren’s niece Jennifer for pushing a Delta Air Lines Inc. crew member is the latest example of spiraling inflight misbehavior that industry body IATA says poses a growing threat to safety.

The 41-year-old was convicted Jan. 8 of drunkenness and threatening, abusive or insulting behavior aboard an aircraft that had forced her Delta flight bound for New York from Barcelona to divert to Shannon in Ireland, Dublin police said.

The number of incidents involving unruly passengers has jumped 12-fold in four years, according to the International Air Transport Association. The group says that’s left airlines wading through myriad local laws to bring prosecutions for offenses ranging from verbal tirades to punch-ups and rape threats, while forcing crews to act as proxy law officers.

“We don’t think they should be placed in a position where they’re a police force in the sky,” said Tim Colehan, IATA’s assistant director for external affairs, who is leading calls for resolution of jurisdiction that mean national authorities “often simply allow the passenger to walk away.”

IATA has drafted changes to rules on passenger behavior for an International Civil Aviation Organization meeting in Montreal in March that would make it easier to punish offenders under national laws.

Expensive Landing

The Delta incident involved a Boeing Co. 767-300ER wide-body aircraft carrying 216 customers, according to the Atlanta-based company. The plane followed established procedure in diverting to Shannon in western Ireland “to have law enforcement address an unruly passenger,” spokesman Morgan Durrant said, declining to comment further.

Jennifer Lauren, who runs Jenny Lauren Jewelry in New York, pleaded guilty at an Irish court hearing, according to Shannon-based Carmody & Co., the firm of her solicitor Sharon Curley. She was fined 2,000 euros ($2,700).

While airlines can bill passengers for the expense of diversions and the resulting disruption, in practice they often view recovery of damages as too time-consuming and costly. The diversion caused by Lauren’s outburst cost the carrier more than $43,000, according to media reports. The airline declined to comment on damages.

Students Expelled

IATA figures show that incidents of unruliness surged from about 500 in 2007 to surpass 6,000 in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.

As technological advances make planes ever-safer, with just 17 fatal accidents and 224 deaths in 2013, the rising tide of on-board conflicts reflects not only the ubiquity of flying and a more systematic collection of data, but also real behavioral changes, according to IATA.

On June 3, a group of about 100 high-school students due to travel from New York to Atlanta were thrown off an AirTran flight after the pilot and crew lost patience with their failure to sit down and turn off mobile phones.

Dubai-based Emirates, the biggest international airline, said Jan. 2 that a passenger on a Singapore-Brisbane flight was restrained and met by Australian police on arrival. Local reports said the man, who was arrested and charged, had repeatedly sought to smoke.

So-called sky marshals, introduced by some countries after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S., tend not to intercede in minor disturbances because such incidents “can be used as a shield for terrorist action,” Colehan said.

Failed Upgrades

The most frequently reported issues concern the illegal consumption of narcotics or cigarettes, refusal to comply with safety instructions and verbal confrontation with crew or other passengers, all often associated with drunkenness, he said.

Reports collected by IATA read like police files, recording attempts by passengers to open doors mid-flight and punch flight attendants, and threats of sexual assault. At the less extreme end of the spectrum, customers get upset for a range of reasons, the IATA reports show.

Frustrations can start with other travelers reclining seats, requests to remain seated during taxiing and turbulence, and even failure to secure an upgrade. Airport crowds, the stress of sitting in a confined space for hours on end and a fear of flying can also trigger incidents.

IATA is promoting other measures to prevent incidents happening in the first place -- focused on curtailing drunkenness. The body recommends airlines restrict consumption to alcohol served by cabin crew and consider scrapping free drinks on routes with high instances of air rage.

The industry group also suggests that members adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward bad behavior, screening passengers at the gate and denying boarding where necessary.

Joerg Handwerg, a Deutsche Lufthansa AG captain and spokesman for Germany’s Vereinigung Cockpit pilot union, reckons a plane makes an unscheduled stop to jettison an unruly passenger once a year on average in Europe’s largest economy.

“This doesn’t happen just for complaining about the food,” said Handwerg, who pilots Airbus Group A320 narrow-body jets. “It is massively aggressive behavior.”