What To Do If You're Seated By An Unruly Passenger On A Flight

There are certain protocols you should follow if you encounter someone causing a disruption on a flight.
There are certain protocols you should follow if you encounter someone causing a disruption on a flight.

There are certain protocols you should follow if you encounter someone causing a disruption on a flight.

In-flight disturbances caused by passengers tend to make headlines. These incidents range from attacks on flight attendants to disputes over crying babies to full-on threats to the plane.

“Air travel is a stressful experience,” said Zach Griff, a senior reporter at The Points Guy. “From lines at the check-in counter to stringent security checks to frequent flight delays, tensions often run high at the airport, especially for first-time flyers. And once travelers are crammed into metal tubes, these stressors can boil over into full-blown meltdowns.”

Although in-flight disturbances are still generally rare, recent years seem to have brought an increase in their frequency.

“Social and political issues always show up on our planes,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union. “The pandemic exposed massive inequality and suffering. It affected every single person in one way or another. We took a pause from being around even our loved ones, let alone throngs of strangers of every age and diverse backgrounds. In some cases we forgot how to be together ― in other cases the stress piled high and spilled out erratically on the evening news.”

The Federal Aviation Administration reports about four unruly passenger incidents per 10,000 flights ― a decrease from previous years’ data but an increase from pre-pandemic times. Looking globally, the International Air Transport Association just released a report showing that the number of such incidents actually rose in 2022 compared to 2021.

With the increasingly sharp divisions, lack of trust and general anxiety and uncertainty many people feel in 2023, it’s not terribly surprising that some are at their worst during air travel.

“Though pandemic travel restrictions are generally behind us, air travel is more stressful than ever,” Griff said. “That, combined with a higher proportion of infrequent travelers taking to the skies, is likely partly responsible for the rise in unruly passenger incidents.”

What To Do If You Find Yourself Next To An Unruly Passenger

“If you find yourself sitting next to someone behaving erratically, you’ll want to practice de-escalation tactics,” Griff said. “Don’t do anything to further incite the unruly passenger.”

De-escalation tactics can include responding in a calm, collected voice if they’re speaking to you. Don’t match a fellow passenger’s rage but instead consider paraphrasing back what they’re saying back to them to indicate they’re being heard. To put an end to an uncomfortable conversation, you might have success putting on your headphones or earplugs and eye mask as though you’re going to sleep.

If the situation remains disruptive, remember the flight attendants are on board to help.

“First, go to the airport with the spirit of solidarity and put your phone down for a moment when boarding a plane to make eye contact with the flight attendants,” Nelson said. “Flight attendants are trained to de-escalate. We don’t hear about the 99% of would-be incidents that are resolved by aviation’s first responders every day.”

Refrain from trying to take drastic action and instead seek their professional assistance ― ideally out of earshot of the disruptive passenger.

“If possible, leave your seat ― perhaps under the guise that you need to use the lavatory ― and approach a flight attendant in the galley to explain the situation,” Griff said. “The flight crew is trained to handle these situations. Don’t take matters into your own hands.”

Nelson echoed this advice, urging passengers to voice their concerns to a flight attendant but then step aside.

“Unless you or someone near you is in imminent danger, please wait for flight attendant instructions,” she said. “Some well-meaning passengers can unintentionally escalate a situation. Be a good witness and ready helper. If instructed, help flight attendants with the disruptive passenger.”

The union leader also called for decisive action in the aftermath of serious and violent in-flight disturbances.

“Clear consequences are critical to deter bad behavior,” Nelson said. “We commend the [Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Safety Administration and Department of Justice] for working together to ensure swift investigation, prosecution, and enforcement of fines and/or jail time.”

She also called on Congress to pass the Protection From Abusive Passengers Act, which would create a centralized list of banned fliers that would be managed by the TSA.

“The worst offenders should also lose the freedom of flight,” Nelson said. “If passengers act badly on one airline, they shouldn’t be allowed to simply buy a ticket on another airline.”