Unruly skies: Booze now causes fracas on 1 in 1000 flights

Incidents involving unruly airline passengers have been rising in recent years. In 2017, airlines reported one altercation for every 1,053 flights, up 35 percent from the previous year, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Drugs and alcohol play a leading role in many of these incidents. The association says 27 percent of the cases involved alcohol consumption or some other kind of intoxication. An additional 24 percent were related to noncompliance with smoking regulations.

“Drink-fueled air rage is becoming more commonplace,” says Robert Quigley, a senior vice president for International SOS and MedAire, which provide travel-security services. “Multiple agencies that oversee in-flight regulations are now collaborating with the commercial airlines to review present practices of the selling and the consumption of alcohol in both airport bars as well as in-flight.”

It looks like a simple problem: Too many airline passengers are getting drunk. But the solution is not so simple. Some passengers say the obvious answer is for airlines to limit sales of alcoholic beverages. But airlines are leaning toward a regulatory fix, perhaps because they’re reluctant to lose the revenue from selling alcohol to passengers.

If you’re on a plane with someone who’s had one too many, you can still protect yourself. But you’ll have to be proactive. (More on that later.)

Airline crews are trained to handle intoxicated passengers. They also have strict policies to prevent inebriated passengers from boarding – but they don’t always work.


The airline industry believes that more regulations would help. The transport association, which represents the worldwide airline industry, has lobbied for stronger international treaties to deter unruly behavior. It says gaps in the international conventions governing such offenses allow many unruly passengers to escape punishment. It wants, at a minimum, for authorities to clarify what constitutes unruly behavior and to reinforce the right of airlines to seek recovery of the significant costs of dealing with unruly passengers.

“We need more countries to ratify a new treaty that closes loopholes that enable unruly passengers to elude any legal consequences on international flights,” says Tim Colehan, an assistant director for the association.

Experts believe that a few practical steps would also reduce the number of unruly passengers in the air. MedAire’s Quigley says airlines need to develop an industry-widepolicy that limits the number of drinks per passenger and to enforce this policy consistently. Gate-screening processes should also be tightened, he says, and should involve airport-security personnel, not just airline employees.

“Flight attendants are not trained or expected to act as law enforcement agents,” Quigley says.

One obvious solution is to stop serving alcohol on board, an idea regularly floated by passengers who have grown tired of the seemingly endless parade of such incidents. But liquor, beer and wine account for more than half of all in-flight sales, so it’s unlikely that the airline industry will go there.

As usual, the fix is up to passengers. For your safety and that of your fellow passengers, avoid alcoholic beverages or recreational drugs before and during a flight. If you’re seated next to someone who is drunk or high, don’t wait for the cabin doors to close. Report the passenger immediately, but discreetly, to a flight attendant. Someone who smells like a distillery shouldn’t be allowed to board. If the flight crew doesn’t do anything, and there’s no empty seat to move to, ask to take the next flight, time permitting.

Just remember that until we find a workable solution, you don’t have to become another anecdote in an air-rage article.

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