What Cruise Lines Can Teach Airlines About Unruly Passengers

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Reading the news reports lately (which is not always a reliable way to gain perspective), one might surmise that US airlines are still in reactive mode when dealing with noncompliant, deviant, and violent passengers. Major episodes are still relatively rare, but their drama value makes for reliable stories.

We hear about assaultive passengers being subdued, duct-taped into their seats, and turned over to authorities at the destination. Each episode seems to be handled in its own haphazard way.

The cruise lines solved the disruptive passenger problem long ago, and their solutions can apply—with creative adaptations—to air travel compliance as well. Let’s consider the possible lessons the airlines can learn from the cruise lines, and how they might make those adaptations.

Every Cruise Ship Has a Brig

For hundreds of years, accepted seafaring conventions, sometimes referred to colloquially as the “law of the sea,” have given ship captains virtually unquestioned authority over the crew and passengers on their vessels. You probably won’t hear it mentioned in your departure orientation, but your captain has the authority to arrest and confine abusive passengers. There’s an actual brig below decks; it’s usually about the size of Andy Griffith’s jail.

(Just for the record: each cruise ship has a morgue as well. Once you think about the logistics of confining several thousand people in a vessel that’s hundreds of miles from the nearest port, the practical necessities become apparent).

Every commercial airliner of any significant size should have a brig, too.

Too expensive, you say? Too extreme? Au contraire—almost all jetliners have at least two toilets. One should be outfitted for emergency use as a miniature jail cell, with a reinforced door lockable from outside. Forget the duct tape and the plastic wrist restraints; let’s do it right.

As a secondary form of confinement, the last row of seats should be reinforced and outfitted with strong restraints, including lockable seat belts which only the crew can release with a key. The level of restraint can be escalated to match the severity of the threat: 1) ankle restraints; 2) arm or wrist restraints; 3) blindfolds; or 4) face masks, or “spit hoods,” for active spitters.

They Don’t Make You “Walk the Plank” Anymore, But . . .

There’s a modern-day equivalent of walking the  plank. The ship’s captain has the authority to put passengers ashore at any port along its itinerary if they’re acting abusively or dangerously. This became a possibility on a cruise ship I traveled on a few years ago.

A whole family of 7 or 8 people were drunk and disorderly, behaving obnoxiously, harassing crew members and other passengers; and ruining the expensive vacation experience for everyone. The ship’s captain issued a formal warning to them over the public address system, so that they and all others on the ship got the message. If they broke the rules one more time, he would put them ashore at the next destination. No refunds, no hotel vouchers, no air tickets home. When they realized they could be forking over $10,000 or more to get home, they decided to behave themselves.

Airlines should employ an identical policy. Some do, and we might see it become universal. The airliner’s captain has the authority to re-route the flight at his or her discretion if it appears that the safety of the aircraft, crew, or passengers has been placed in jeopardy.

As with the seafaring model, the captain could redirect the flight or stop at an intermediate airport and kick the offenders off the plane. As with the seafaring model: no refunds, no reimbursements, no tickets home. It’s an international flight and they put you off in a country for which you have no visa? Good luck negotiating with the customs and immigration authorities at the airport.

Mutinies Won’t Be Tolerated

Every cruise ship has a miniature police force, or “security department.” Airlines can’t hope to maintain highly trained security forces on board all their flights, and they don’t have to. Remember the phase, a few year ago, when we heard about anonymous “air marshals” riding around on planes, ready to spring into action if necessary? That  proved too costly and impractical, but airlines can still do something like it, in miniature.

Each air crew should have one well trained, designated “episode manager,” who can take over and manage a problem situation if it arises. That person should be fully familiar with the tools and methods for restraining or managing unruly passengers—including a basic understanding of how to deal with someone experiencing a psychiatric crisis. The crew should treat such a person with all due consideration, but ultimately the methods for managing them are fairly similar to the methods for managing the “normal” person who misbehaves in public places.

One simple device all air crews should have available is pepper spray, the use of which should require a direct order from the plane’s captain. A second, equally useful device should be a “blinder hood,” which is simply an opaque bag with a drawstring that can be tossed over the head of an abusive or threatening individual, making it much easier to control and manage them.

The “Law of the Air”

A “law of the air” seems to be gradually taking shape, and airlines should join with governments to extend these rules and practices to the international level.

On basic and important law of the air should be: No Alcohol on board airplanes. We should prohibit all airlines from serving alcoholic drinks, including foreign carriers if they want to land at US airports. While we’re at it, let’s close down the airport bars, where alcohol abusers can get juiced up before they board their flights. Profit should take a back seat to safety.

Delinquents ejected in a US airport, for example, should be met by federal authorities. Currently, this seems like a haphazard practice, sometimes done and sometimes not. For extreme offenses, they should be arrested, detained, and charged with a felony. There could be an option, for less serious offenses, to pay a fine on the spot. Those who refused to settle would see the inside of the federal court system. Cabin surveillance video would provide evidence of their misconduct.

Disruptive passengers on international flights should be returned to their country of origin, at their expense, and remanded to the custody of the respective national law enforcement agencies.

But let’s not stop there. The other passengers on the plane, whose rights to peaceful travel have been violated, should have the right to sue the offenders in federal court, either as individuals or in a class action lawsuit, for costs and damages. There should be an automatic procedure for this, managed by a federal agency such as the Transportation Safety Administration.

No-fly lists must also become standard systems, diligently updated and enforced. As of this writing, various airlines are discussing methods to share the identities of disruptive individuals, but it remains in the category of unfinished business. Cruise lines also need to catch up with technology in this respect. Ultimately, we need a universal, trans-national no-fly/no-sail list, available to all carriers. Maybe this will eventually apply to train travel as well.

Let’s Get It Done

It’s time for airlines and government agencies that oversee and support the industry to get serious, pull up their socks, and set up the necessary laws, systems, and practices. Travel by air should be just as safe and reliable—if not as comfortable—as travel by sea.


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