Assaults, rows and coin tosses: airlines miss true scale of air rage as millions fly for first time

Unruly behaviour remains a threat to aviation safety, says IATA, and airlines need to prepare staff and crew to deal with disruptive passengers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 3:58pm

Airlines worldwide are likely to have “significantly underestimated” the true scale of air rage, as the incidents of unruly behaviour by first-time travellers are probably being under-reported in China and the rest of Asia, according to the global aviation industry guild.

Unruly behaviour declined 9.8 per cent last year to 9,837 reported cases, ranging from verbal spats to tampering with aircraft equipment, said the International Air Transport Association (IATA). However, the number of physical attacks rose by 1 percentage point to 12 per cent, according to the data by IATA, which represents 275 airlines with 83 per cent of global air traffic.

“Unruly passengers remain a significant daily issue for airlines around the world … [and] can threaten this hard fought safety record [for the aviation industry],” said IATA’s assistant director of external affairs Tim Colehan, last week in Geneva.

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Without a proper understanding of the true scale of potentially disruptive behaviour, airlines cannot adequately prepare, or train their crew, to deal with air rage, aviation officials said.

The data is particularly inadequate in China, where more people fly for the first time than anywhere else on Earth. The country’s air passengers may increase to 1.5 billion by 2036, according to IATA’s projection.

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Still, only six of China’s 38 commercial airlines – who operate a total of 12,000 flights everyday – ever report their data, including incidents of air rage, to the industry guild. The six carriers include Air China, China Southern Airlines and Hainan Airlines. China Eastern Airlines, the country’s third-largest carrier, doesn’t report its data, and neither does Shenzhen Airlines nor Sichuan Airlines.

Yet Chinese passengers have been responsible for dozens of cases of unruly behaviour, many of them captured on smartphones for social media. A Beijing couple stormed the runway to prevent an aircraft’s departure after they missed the check-in time, while an elderly woman in Shanghai tossed coins into an aircraft engine for good luck.

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In response, the Chinese aviation authority created a no-fly black list, where offending passengers are banned from any air travel.

None of these cases, all reported in the media, would be recorded by IATA because they happened before passengers stepped on board an aircraft, underscoring the gap between statistics and the true state of air rage and unruly behaviour.

The problem may be further understated, as the Asia-Pacific region will see 3.5 billion people flying within the next two decades, led by growth in China, India and Indonesia. Many of these will be first-time air travellers, unfamiliar with the behavioural norms, culture or safety procedures required in flying.

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“We do see mob-like behaviour at airports and a lot of these reports coming from China,” said Philip Baum, a certified aviation security and safety trainer. “That’s part and parcel of the speed of growth in aviation in certain markets, and the number of people taking to the skies for the first time is dramatically increasing.”

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Baum was at the IATA summit last week to present tools on how cabin crew can spot an incident before it happens and show how incidents can be de-escalated on board.

“Even the figures we have indicate that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed in terms of training given and penalties that need to be introduced to punish those people who do find themselves perpetrating acts of unlawful incidents in civil aviation, even if it’s only an unruly passenger incidents and not a terrorist incident,” he said.