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Published 26 October 2020
In seeking to resuscitate the global commercial air travel industry, there are calls for compulsory pre-flight testing, to screen passengers for Covid-19. Disruptive passenger behaviour in-flight is irksome at best, can lead to flight diversion (a costly operational headache for the carrier) and has the potential to cause serious incident or accident, with attendant costs to aviation insurers. Against a backdrop of growing public acceptance of testing, in the context of flight safety, has the time come to consider mandatory breathalyser tests prior to boarding, to quell incidents of alcohol-fuelled air rage?
All the rage
Incidents of air rage or other disruptive behaviour in-flight are a real and growing phenomenon. Headline statistics from EASA make for worrying reading: every 3 hours the safety of a flight within the EU is threatened by passengers demonstrating unruly or disruptive behaviour; at least 70% of these incidents involve some form of aggression; unruly passengers threaten the safety of 1000 flights a year; and once a month the situation escalates forcing the flight to perform an emergency landing. The potential for extreme disruptive behaviour to be a catalyst for an in-flight serious incident or accident cannot be ignored.
Air rage is a shocking trend and one that has not abated notwithstanding the plummet in commercial passenger operations in the current Covid-19 pandemic. On 20 September 2020, a Jet2 flight from Glasgow to Bodrum diverted to Manchester to disembark an unruly intoxicated passenger. In the preceding month, on 26 August a flight from Dalaman to the UK was forced to initiate a diversion to Greece when a passenger became abusive and reportedly started to hammer on the cockpit door.
Read the small print
In making a flight booking, the passenger enters into a contract with the carrier. The relationship is subject to express terms and conditions. In the days of hard copy, se conditions of carriage were found on the reverse of the ticket. In the age of e-tickets, they are readily available at the point of booking and on the carrier’s website. Such is the potential for air rage incidents that conditions of carriage include express provisions setting out the expected level of passenger behaviour and warn of criminal and civil sanction where behaviour falls below the same.
In 2019, EASA joined forces with IATA to promote a new campaign “#notonmyflight”. The aim is to publicise a zero tolerance approach by the industry to air rage. The campaign draws attention to examples of unruly behaviour in flight and the consequences for perpetrators, to include criminal sanctions.
In England and Wales, related criminal offences are contained within the Air Navigation Order 2016 (Part 10, Chapter 1). Acts of drunkenness on an aircraft attract a maximum fine of £5,000 and two years in prison. The custodial sentence for endangering the safety of an aircraft is up to five years. Sanctions extend also into the civil field. Disruptive passengers may be banned for life from travelling with the carrier concerned and/or asked to reimburse the airline for the cost of the diversion. Those costs can be significant: the UK Civil Aviation Authority suggests diversion costs range from GBP10,000 to GBP 80,000, depending on the facts .
A sobering example
The conviction of Chloe Haines earlier this year stands as a sobering warning. On 22 June 2019 shortly into a flight from Stansted to Turkey, she displayed what Jet2 described as a, “catalogue of aggressive, abusive and dangerous behaviour,” which included attempting to open the aircraft doors at 30,000ft. In the fracas that ensued (her behaviour fuelled by a mix of medication and alcohol) she kicked and punched fellow passengers and cabin crew as they fought to restrain her. Two RAF Typhoon fighter jets were scrambled (the sonic boom being heard across much of the south-east of England) to accompany the flight back to Stansted airport. In February 2020, having pleaded guilty to charges, she was handed a two year custodial sentence. In a clear demonstration of a zero tolerance approach to air rage behaviour, the carrier followed through by imposing a lifetime ban and sent Ms Haines a bill for incurred flight diversion costs of an eye-watering £85,000.00.
Whilst not an ingredient in all air rage cases, there is a clear correlation between excessive alcohol consumption and in-flight disruptive behaviour. So, is the answer to take alcohol out of the equation? The travelling public has come to expect a sophisticated provision of facilities and services at airport departure terminals to include bars and restaurants serving alcohol. Many now offer a giddy range of facilities in which to while away the time (often hours) before flight embarkation, with the bonus of duty free prices. The onus is on the individual to operate restraint. The majority confirm, a worrying minority do not. The commercial reality is that we are unlikely to see a ban on the sale of alcohol at airport terminals. However, one cannot escape the fact that the excessive consumption and/or the mixing of alcohol with medication on features prominently in air rage cases. So, what more can be done?
Testing: the new norm
In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have adjusted to mass testing and submitted to the same on a voluntary basis. Yesterday’s taboo has become today’s norm. On 23 September 2020, IATA called for the development of rapid, accurate and affordable Covid -19 virus tests for all airline passengers, before flight departures, as an alternative to existing quarantine measures. The call is made in a bid to get people flying again and the industry off its knees . IATA’s research suggests that the overwhelming majority of passengers (more than 80%) support testing of all travelers, and importantly, they are willing to undergo testing as part of the travel process.
The quest for a Covid-19 test that is rapid, accurate and affordable has become a global holy grail. Meanwhile, in the context of alcohol testing, simple mobile breath testers are already widely available, deliver fast results with a high degree of reliability and are affordable. In many areas touching on health and critical safety we look back and gasp that measures that seem now so obvious and essential were so long in coming. It was only in October 2015 that we saw the prohibition in the UK of smoking in cars with minor passengers. If we look at road safety, it was not until 1983 that the wearing of front seat belts in cars became mandatory and not until 1991 that we saw a similar requirement for rear seat passengers. So, is the future of safer passenger air travel, one of breathalyzer test before boarding?
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