You shouldn't confront unruly passengers – but there are exceptions

What should passengers do if they find themselves in the middle of disruptive behaviour? Don't overreact, experts say. Picture: Pexels

What should passengers do if they find themselves in the middle of disruptive behaviour? Don't overreact, experts say. Picture: Pexels

Published Apr 4, 2022


By Hannah Sampson

The 37-year-old man on a Frontier Airlines flight to Orlando was becoming a problem. As he threatened fellow passengers and claimed his DNA was being taken, flight attendants moved people from seats near him.

Then the call from flight attendants went out, according to a criminal complaint, asking for "assistance from able-bodied passengers" to help restrain him.

It's not every day fellow passengers are asked to step in during an in-flight meltdown. But the February 9 Frontier example wasn't the only example that month.

A few days later, when a traveller on a DC-bound American Airlines flight tried to open the plane door, another passenger said she heard requests for "big guys to come to the front of the plane". Bystanders and crew subdued the 50-year-old man.

Disruptive behaviour has reached unprecedented levels in recent years, often involving passengers who refuse to follow the federal mask mandate for transportation. As of Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration had received 1 035 reports of unruly passengers this year. Last year's tally reached 5 981.

What should passengers do if they find themselves in the middle of disruptive behaviour? Don't overreact, experts say.

Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said fliers should not engage, unless there was imminent danger of physical harm.

Instead, she said, they should notify flight attendants, who are trained in de-escalation techniques, by telling one when they pass by, going to the galley area or ringing the call button.

"If a fellow passenger is disruptive, the flight attendants will handle that and prefer no interference, unless the situation becomes violent," Jeff Price, the professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said. "Otherwise, the involvement of other passengers before a physical altercation (or threat of one), can escalate the situation."

Most airlines declined to answer questions from The Washington Post about the topic.

"We ask that customers follow the instructions of Southwest employees during any type of incident or event as each situation can be unique," Southwest Airlines said.

Even if a situation escalates, passengers may not need to step in. Federal air marshals are placed on domestic and international flights, though details about their numbers and deployment are not released.

The president of the Southwest flight attendants union asked her airline last year to demand that the government increase the number of air marshals on flights and ask that they get involved when a crew member is threatened. The Transportation Security Administration also offers self-defence training to flight attendants.

Nelson said a fellow passenger should intervene only if a flight attendant asked them to do so. She said they might be asked to move to another seat.

"In extreme incidents, passengers may be directed to help restrain another passenger," she said.

Price said that could look like a specific request to grab someone's hands, or whatever else the crew needs. In the Frontier scuffle, the group ultimately put zip ties around the hands of the violent passenger and bound his feet with plastic wrap.

Passengers have been intervening in such incidents for decades – sometimes with serious results.

In 2000, a 19-year-old passenger who broke a Southwest cockpit door died after he was restrained by several passengers. Prosecutors declined to file charges in his death, the New York Times reported.

Nelson said travellers who were asked to help should be clear right way about how they were willing to pitch in.

"It's rare that we would ask for help because most people want a safe, uneventful flight and it's a small percentage of people who cause conflict or problems," she said. "If you don't want to help, let us know immediately so we can direct someone else in an emergency."

Price said: "The only passengers obligated to do anything are those that sit in the exit row, that they open the doors during an emergency."