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The aviation industry faces a rising rate of unruly passenger flight disruptions, with associated safety and security risks, at costs of up to US$200,000 each time an airplane must be diverted. Recently news coverage has focused on alcohol sales as a contributing factor, but how much of this behavior can be attributed to alcohol is unclear, and there are also doubts over whether restricting the sale of alcohol at the terminal would really change anything.

There were 10,854 reported incidents of unruly passengers in 2015, equivalent to one incident for every 1,200 flights (0.12%). These figures represent an increase over 2014, when there were 9,316 reports. In the 2015 figures, 23% were attributed to the consumption of alcohol or drugs.

IATA supports initiatives like the UK aviation industry’s new Code of Practice on Disruptive Passengers, which focuses on collaboration between stakeholders, such as airports, airlines, retailers and local authorities, to deter disruptive behavior at the terminal, including but not limited to discouraging passengers from consuming alcohol to excess.

Predicting unruly behavior in Glasgow

Glasgow Airport is one facility that is leading the way in implementing programs to reduce the impact of disruptive passengers. Three years ago the airport launched an initiative that exemplifies the type of collaboration IATA is now trying to achieve. Glasgow’s Campus Watch program involves providing training and advice to airport staff who might interact with passengers, including check-in staff, the airport’s security team, bar staff, retailers and airline employees. The aim is to pre-empt and address unacceptable passenger behavior.

François Bourienne, Glasgow Airport’s commercial director, tells Passenger Terminal World that disruptive behavior at the airport is rare. In 2015 Glasgow reported 100 incidents where police had to speak to unruly passengers. This is fewer than 0.001% of the nearly nine million passengers the airport served during the year. 

“People are getting the message that we won’t tolerate disruptive behavior,” Bourienne says. “Controls are already in place as duty free, catering, bar and lounge staff are trained to a high standard and will always refuse to serve alcohol to anyone they think has the potential to be disruptive. All licensed outlets in the airport are then alerted to anyone who has been refused alcohol.”

Two years ago Glasgow Airport also introduced a trial program to curb consumption of alcohol purchased from duty free by working with its duty-free provider and the airline Jet2.com on two weekend services to Ibiza and Prague. These services were selected as the most likely to be problematic. Passengers who bought alcohol from duty free had their purchases placed in a sealed bag and their boarding cards were marked to show the items sold. Airline crew reviewed the boarding pass to crosscheck what was bought with the items the passenger carried. Crew then stored the sealed bag until the flight arrived at its destination.

According to Bourienne, this type of program discourages passengers from consuming their duty-free alcohol purchases at the terminal and onboard. Duty-free staff also warned passengers that their alcohol purchase was for export only, and cannot be consumed in the airport or on a flight. Glasgow Airport has since expanded this practice with other airlines.

Police officers at Glasgow Airport also patrol and monitor passenger behavior from the landside drop-off area onward. Furthermore, airlines report to police on group bookings and officers will speak with large groups, while still landside, if they feel it is necessary. Airport staff can also call a designated contact number if they believe someone might be disruptive. This information is then shared throughout the terminal.

Bourienne says, “These preventive programs are sufficient to minimize any disruptive incidents. They also enable the majority of passengers [99.999%] to enjoy their trip. Limiting alcohol sales would have the consequence of punishing the majority of passengers for the behavior of a very few. On the rare occasions when passengers become disruptive, it is the collective responsibility of the airports, airlines, retailers and other relevant partner organizations to work together to eradicate this sort of behavior.”

Right: Police officers monitor passenger behavior throughout Glasgow Airport

Scandinavian examples

Elena Stenholm, VP of commercial services, and Heikki Koski, VP of passenger management, at Finnish airport operator Finavia, say that established staff guidelines and security department monitoring help keep Helsinki Airport relatively free of disturbances. Helsinki Airport collaborates with concessionaires, encouraging active discussion among stakeholders to minimize disturbances.

“The airport’s own security department controls security, safety and general order of the airport, takes action to prevent any disturbances, and contacts airlines whenever necessary,” Stenholm says.

Koski adds, “If problems appear during the flight, airlines will contact the airport’s security department or the local police and they will attend the incident. This usually calms the situation. If boarding is denied, the passenger remains in the terminal to wait for another flight. It is extremely rare that police will need to take a person into a custody.”

Strict Finnish alcohol regulations, which prohibit the sale of alcohol to anyone who appears drunk and restrict the hours during which alcohol is sold, apply at Helsinki Airport.

Joachim Westher Andersen, communications chief at Avinor, an airport operator in Norway, says that similar collaboration and open communication, as well as local laws, have helped keep Oslo Airport relatively incident free. “All employees that work at our restaurants have to complete a course to identify negative behavior and report it,” Westher Andersen says. “They are trained to look for behavior associated with alcohol. If the serving staff believes that the person is too intoxicated they will report it to our security company, or if worse, to the police.”

Similar to Finland, Norwegian law forbids the sale of alcohol during the night and restricts the hours of sale for hard liquor until after noon. Before then, only beer and wine may be sold.

Left: Helsinki Airport’s Arctic Bar opened in March 2015. The bar includes an outdoor terrace

Age of disruption

Ryan C Meldrum, associate professor at the Steven J Green School of International and Public Affairs, Department of Criminal Justice, at Florida International University, suggests that certain social and personality factors might be better indicators of whether a passenger could become a problem. He has recently published a study in The Social Science Journal which found three distinct patterns which may correspond with disruptive behavior. “Three things stood out as clear correlates of imprudent airline passenger behavior: having flown less frequently than others in the study, being male, and being more self-centered and low in self-control,” Meldrum says.

The study was based on data gathered from 750 adults across the USA who were asked how likely they would be to do (or fail to do) certain things while flying on an airplane. Study participants were asked questions on behavior such as not waiting to recline one’s seat back until the plane has reached cruising altitude, not washing one’s hands after using the lavatory, and cursing at another passenger for bumping one’s seat back. They were also asked to rate themselves on a variety of items measuring impulsivity, self-restraint and self-centeredness. “I did not include alcohol consumption as a contributing factor in my study, but the observation to make is that consuming alcohol obviously reduces inhibitions and degrades the ability to engage in self-control, and this becomes even more evident the more one drinks,” Meldrum adds.

He speculates that any potential link between alcohol consumption and problematic passenger behavior is also tied to the behavioral traits he identified, with younger individuals potentially more prone than older people to be disruptive and antisocial, men more likely than women, and individuals who are generally self-centered or low in self-control more likely to be antisocial.

“Research tells us certain regions of the brain that govern executive functioning, inhibition, and self-control, mainly the frontal cortex, are not fully developed until the mid 20s. Given this, the influence of alcohol consumption on being an unruly airline passenger could differ depending on whether someone is 18 or 28,” Meldrum explains.

He suggests that older individuals are better able to regulate their behavior when drinking. Also, for groups, such as stag parties, he feels alcohol can be an enabler for bad behavior on the ground and in the air. “People tend to engage in greater risk-taking behavior when they are with friends. Thus it’s not a great leap to understand how adding alcohol to that mix would increase the likelihood of unruly behavior. Because consuming alcohol lowers inhibitions, the behavior of a group of guys flying somewhere for a stag weekend is likely to be more unruly if they are all drinking than if they were sober. Remove the alcohol, and I think you would see a reduction in rambunctious behavior in this particular demographic,” he concludes.

To read the full version of the article in the January 2017 issue of Passenger Terminal World, click here.

Article by Marisa Garcia

December 2, 2016

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Kirstie joined the team in early 2017 and brings writing, communications and client experience with her. Now an assistant editor, she produces content for our magazines and websites. Away from the office, you will find her blogging on her lifestyle website or searching the internet for photos of sausage dogs.

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