As we grappled with the pandemic in 2021, reports to the FDA of disruptive and sometimes violent airline passengers surged to unheard-of levels – almost 6,000, more than double any other year. The numbers are down from the peak, but reported incidents are far higher than pre-pandemic levels.
A few of the more extreme ones in 2023 were described recently in the Wall Street Journal:
- A passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight waiting at the gate in New Orleans opened an emergency exit, climbed onto the plane's wing, and jumped to the ground.
- An American Airlines customer service manager was hospitalized after a passenger being removed from a flight in Miami punched her in the face and pushed her down, causing her head to strike the jet bridge.
- In July, a United Airlines flight to Amsterdam was diverted when a Business Class flier launched into a tirade because his preferred meal wasn't available.
- In South Korea in May, a passenger opened his aircraft's emergency exit in mid-flight, forcing the jet to land.
- In October, an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot was riding in a cockpit jump seat when he told pilots, "I'm not OK," and allegedly attempted to shut down the plane's engines midflight, according to federal and state criminal complaints. He told authorities that he had taken "magic mushrooms" about 48 hours before the flight and that he had struggled with depression.
- On October 25, a passenger on a Jet Blue flight from Amsterdam to New York refused to wait in line to use the bathroom and urinated into a bottle at his seat before verbally abusing the flight attendants. The flight was diverted to Boston.
At the very least, such disruptions cause flight delays when planes must return to the gate, await the arrival of law enforcement officials, or are diverted to an alternative city mid-flight.
It is difficult to keep psychotics and sociopaths off airplanes, so such occurrences underscore the potential risks associated with unruly passengers. From assaults on flight attendants to opening exit doors or attempts to enter the cockpit mid-flight, these incidents raise critical questions about passenger intervention and airline safety protocols.
Discussions around passenger intervention often raise concerns about "vigilantism," a term derived from the Committee of Vigilance, formed in San Francisco in the 1850s, when official law enforcement was inadequate. The necessity for airplane passenger involvement in the heroic actions of individuals during United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, illustrates the potential impact of collective intervention in thwarting threats. There have been many other incidents in which the actions of passengers, individually or working together, averted danger during commercial flights.
For example, "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid unsuccessfully attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes and was subdued by a flight attendant and a passenger on a London to Washington, D.C. flight; a Nigerian terrorist tried to ignite an incendiary device as his flight was preparing to land in Detroit; and a flight attendant and two passengers intervened as a Yemeni national, shouting "Allāhu Akbar" ("God is Great"), attempted to break into the cockpit of a Chicago to San Francisco flight.
However, determining the threshold for passenger involvement remains a gray area. Tommy Hamilton, SWAT team commander for the police force at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, who has worked closely with air marshals, cautions against a rush to vigilantism and urges reliance on the professionals in the first instance. "Federal air marshals have credentials and will identify themselves as soon as practical," he said. "It will be easy to see who they are. They will not identify themselves until after someone has identified themselves as a terrorist-hijacker."
But if no air marshals are aboard (and currently, they are assigned to most international flights but only a small percentage of domestic flights), flight attendants and passengers are the first line of defense. Passengers should obey the directions of the flight crew, but they should be mentally and physically prepared to act. Like a basketball player getting ready for a jump ball or a tennis player awaiting a serve, every able-bodied passenger needs to be ready to move and act decisively, not tentatively.
Experts feel that only rarely will terrorists be able to get firearms or explosives on a plane, and having to rely on "softer" weapons puts them at a disadvantage when confronted by scores of passengers, who have at hand plenty of potential improvised weapons: a hard kick in the knee (easier to administer and more likely to succeed than in the groin, according to law enforcement officials); an elbow in the face or ribs; any sharp object in the eyes; a soda can torn in half, which yields a sharp, knife-like edge; a computer cord or belt used as a garrote; an oxygen canister (in one or more of the overhead bins) or metal coffee pot or wine bottle used as a club. (Go for the bridge of the nose or the temple, and swing for the fences: Remember that you're dealing with a would-be mass murderer.)
The incidents reflect a broader societal tendency toward anger and violence, magnified within the confined spaces of airplanes. Michele Freadman, a former Massachusetts Port Authority security executive, notes the correlation between the surge in airline disruptions and more anger and violence in various public settings.
The root causes of these disruptions are multifaceted, ranging from mental health problems to the adverse interaction of prescription medication with alcohol. The reintroduction of alcohol onto flights post-pandemic and passengers' post-lockdown unease are cited as contributing factors, fueling tensions in already stressful environments.
Airlines and regulators worldwide are grappling with finding ways to mitigate these risks. Initiatives such as increased self-defense training for cabin crews and pre-boarding assessments to identify potentially disruptive passengers attempt to preemptively address issues before they escalate onboard.
Regulatory bodies like the FAA have adopted a zero-tolerance approach, enforcing stiffer penalties and disqualifications from programs like TSA PreCheck for unruly passengers. Proposed legislation would implement new measures, including expanded no-fly lists and enhanced staff training.
The decline in incidents following the peak of the pandemic suggests that stricter enforcement can act as a deterrent. However, challenges persist in managing outlier behaviors driven by intoxication, an extreme sense of entitlement, or mental illness.
As the aviation industry navigates the delicate balance between passenger safety and individual freedoms, the collective responsibility of passengers and the robustness of airline protocols become crucial in safeguarding air travel. The inevitability of some level of bad behavior demands proactive measures and collaborative efforts, including intervention by passengers in extreme situations. So, remember, when you fly, maintain situational awareness and have a plan.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger distinguished fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He was previously the founding director of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Biotechnology.