As unruly airline passenger incidents take off, a search for solutions

unruly passengers

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 (IATA).

Drugs and alcohol play a leading role in many of these incidents. IATA 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.

Unruly airline passenger becoming “more commonplace”

“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 this summer 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.

One pilot’s story about an unruly passenger

Randall Flick, a recently retired airline pilot, recalls one traveler who breezed past a gate agent and boarded Flick’s plane while “heavily” intoxicated. “I told him that he wasn’t getting on his flight. I don’t think he really understood,” says Flick, who lives in Sellersburg, Ind.

The inebriated traveler and the gate agent were both at fault, Flick says. He should have had less to drink before boarding. She should have screened him properly and kept him off the plane.

“The gate agents didn’t always notice when a passenger was intoxicated,” Flick says. “Most of the time, the intoxicated passenger just went to sleep as the cabin altitude rose during the flight. But an intoxicated passenger could endanger the safety of others during an emergency.”

What federal law says about unruly passengers

Federal law prohibits flight crews from allowing “obviously intoxicated passengers” to board aircraft, and it doesn’t allow flight attendants to serve alcohol to anyone who appears intoxicated. Another regulation prohibits passengers from “assaulting or intimidating” crew members and interfering with their duties. Doing so carries a fine of up to $35,000 and a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

For some air travelers, the solution to this problem seems clear: If the government can end smoking on flights, then why not ban drinking? Barring that, why don’t airlines better enforce the rules that prohibit intoxicated passengers from boarding an aircraft and continuing to drink on board?

“Don’t allow people to board a plane if they’re obviously drunk and limit the drinks any passenger can have in flight,” says Barbara Howell, a frequent air traveler and registered nurse from Carpinteria, Calif.

But alcohol isn’t always the problem. Consider what happened this year on a Delta Air Lines flight from Seattle to Los Angeles. A passenger allegedly refused to stay seated and walked toward the cockpit several times. The flight diverted to Portland, Ore., and police arrested the passenger, who told authorities that he had been high on methamphetamines before he boarded the plane.

Will more regulations help avert unruly passenger incidents?

The airline industry believes that more regulations would help. IATA, which represents the worldwide airline industry, has lobbied for stronger international treaties to deter unruly behavior. The organization 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, including the U.S., to ratify a new treaty that closes loopholes that enable unruly passengers to elude any legal consequences on international flights,” says Tim Colehan, an IATA assistant director.

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-wide policy 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.

Maybe they should stop service alcohol on board?

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.

Posted in The Navigator Tagged , ,

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at

Underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at

Underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International,, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.