We are seeing more and more passengers “losing it” on flights. What exactly is happening and why is this taking place? With smart phones, social media, and news broadcasts, we can almost experience these behaviors as if we are there to witness them in person! As a pilot, we are dealing with aggressive, crazy, and disruptive situations to a greater extent than ever before. Just in the last few months, several of us pilots have had occurrences of passenger arguments, fights, erratic behaviors, episodes of passing out, aircraft damages, rages, death threats, and bomb threats.
Our job is to keep the jet, the crew, and the passengers safe. At 39,000ft and 550MPH, while dealing with weather, fuel, systems, schedules, etc., this is not the time for us to be distracted by someone who cannot handle themselves. Here is why I think this is happening and what we all need to do to protect ourselves and our flights:
- Stress – People must allow PLENTY of time to get to and through the airport. My rule of thumb is to be at the airport at least 3 hours before your domestic flight and 4 hours before your international flight. No one can assume that because the last time they were at the airport for a flight, it only took 1 1/2 hours so this time it must be the same, right? WRONG. It completely depends on traffic to the airport, airport construction, specific days of the week, different times of the day, weather conditions, amount of ticket agents and baggage handlers working, staffing of TSA security agents, the location of your gate and how far it might be, and so on. I will also throw factors of being hot, hungry, thirsty, and in a rush to make matters even worse. Please do not do this to yourselves. Plan ahead to eat food and drink water every 3 hours. Bring some health bars or trail mix with you to keep blood sugars stable. Allow for plenty of time at the airport so you are not running behind. Yes, you may have to endure an airport worker or two who are not being the most pleasant and may even be rude, but do not let that affect your stride, health or mood.
- Smaller spaces – The airlines, as a way of getting more people to and from their destinations while keeping ticket prices down, keep adding more seats. We want lower prices so there are extra fees for additional space and added amenities. The FAA allows the airlines do this, but only to a certain size and space minimum. This “real estate” is a hot commodity. It makes people feel uncomfortable, restless, and irritated to be “packed in like sardines”. Yes, I too have to sit in those seats sometimes so I understand. But, we are all “packed in there together’ so we have to find ways to respectfully co-habitate for those hours on a flight.
- Entitlement mentality – It is fascinating to us crew members that endure the wrath of people who feel that since they bought a ticket, they own the jet (and us as well!). The ticket allows us to “rent a space” on an airliner owned by the airline or lessor for a short duration from point A to point B (sometimes point C if an un-planned event arises!) Even I, as the Captain, have to tell myself sometimes that I do not own the jet or the operation but instead, that I am a hired operator.
- Lower ticket prices – My guess would be that if there was a study done, the low cost airlines would probably show higher incidences of these behaviors than other carriers. Unfortunately, there has been a real shift from “flying is a privilege” to “flying is riding a bus through the sky”. People are flying in sleep wear, flip flops, tank tops, shirts with inappropriate language or images, etc. If you want to see some of what we see, go to “Passenger Shaming” on the social medias and You Tube. Yes, it is truly crazy!
- Flying Anxiety – People can become aggressive or enraged due to fear. You want to keep an eye out for these people in the gate area. If you see someone looking about wildly or appear very agitated, the last thing they need to do is get on the jet. They will need strategies and interventions but this needs to start long before the actual flight.
- Drugs, Meds, Alcohol – These do not “mix” with flying. In some cases, people will take tranquilizers, medications, alcohol for the first time before a flight without knowing how their body will react. I will tell you that most jet cabin pressure systems are at 8,000ft when the jets are at cruising altitudes. This means our bodies are breathing air that has the same pressure as being atop of an 8000ft mountain. The air is thinner so the effects of these items above are almost double. If you are use to swigging 2-3 shots of booze to chill out, many experienced travelers will tell you that it is like having 4-5. This same factor applies to tranquilizers, meds, and other drugs. Know before the flight how your body will handle them. Do not mix drugs, with booze, with altitude – this is a recipe for a mess. In some cases, effects of mental illness or medical problems can be worsened with onboard and inflight conditions.
- Bringing issues aboard – We as flight crews must compartmentalize all the time. We cannot bring our personal problems or life challenges on the jet with us, we must leave them back at home, for your safety and ours. The same must apply to the passengers. If someone is not “fit to fly” or if they cannot control their emotions or thoughts, they need to stay on the ground until they can better manage the situation. I, myself, have been in a few extremely distressing positions where I needed to get home and it was all I could do to keep my composure during what seemed like an eternity riding in the back. Sometimes people are dealing with a lot, and sometimes simply showing care can make all the difference between a negative escalation or a calm composure.
The flight crews are not trained in self defense maneuvers, martial arts, or CPR. Some times we have air marshals onboard and some of us are federal flight deck officers who are strictly trained for protecting the cockpit, not for dealing with passenger issues. We are relying on you to speak up if you ever see anything that looks strange or suspicious, especially before we board the flight or takeoff to the skies. You can use the words “concerned and unsafe” when describing what you have seen or heard. If these words do not get their attention, tell another worker because it should!
The ramifications of interfering with airline crew, property of the airline, or other passengers: federal charges, jail time and no-fly listed among all the airlines. We will divert the flight to somewhere nearby, have the authorities meet the jet, and have the person or people arrested. Unfortunately, this costs the airlines (and indirectly the passengers) a lot of money while affecting everyones travel plans. I ask that people do not engage in drama or jump into a mob mentality during a tough circumstance. We may ask stronger passengers to help subdue or secure and aggressive or violent passenger. Speak up, problem solve, stay calm, put on headphones, and crank up some calming music or good movie. I also recommend reading “Remove Before Flight” for more insight and empowering information.
Blue Skies and I will see you onboard!