A powder keg? The cost of diverting a plane when passengers come into conflict and can’t be controlled can run as high as $200,000.
RISK REPORT: AVIATION
Political and cultural
clashes are moving
off the streets and into
the aisles of airplanes.
By Anne Freedman
Turbulence in the air is increasing, and a change in flight plan isn’t the answer. As cultural and political clashes move from the streets into the air — and onto You Tube — airlines must protect their brands and other passengers before events get out of hand. Liability is generally not an
issue unless there is bodily injury, but even then it’s questionable whether an
airline would be found at fault when a dispute is between two passengers.
While incidents involving unruly passengers on airplanes have been increasing,
there are no statistics kept on the types of disturbance that have occurred.
Yet, anecdotal evidence abounds. More than 2 million people have watched
You Tube videos about the New York attorney who was kicked off a JetBlue flight
after verbally accosting Ivanka Trump and her family.
Both supporters and critics of President Trump have been kicked off airplanes
after loudly proclaiming their political views, and sometimes refusing to sit next to
people who have different opinions.
It’s not just political disagreements that bedevil airlines. Some Orthodox Jewish
or Muslim men have refused to sit next to women. Some Muslim passengers have
been removed from planes just for speaking Arabic or been refused boarding for
praying before take-off.
Some men are asked to switch their seats to avoid having them seated next
to unaccompanied underage females. Some women who travel alone have been
assaulted by seatmates.
“The airline is truly caught in the middle of this situation and doesn’t want to
be there,” said attorney Mark Dombroff, chair of the aviation practice at Dentons
law firm. “Yet, they find themselves wrapped up in this cultural tension.
“You overlay heightened awareness of terrorism and cultural sensitivity, and put
that in the context of the already stressful environment of aviation and I think it
ratchets up the issue on airplanes.”
Two brokers who work with the aviation industry said no insurance claims
relating to political or cultural disputes have been filed, according to the claims
adjusters they spoke with.
A DIFFICULT SITUATION
“It’s very difficult to answer on a universal level as to what an airline can do
about it,” said Rob Lawson, a partner at the Clyde & Co. law firm, who specializes
in aviation. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
“Historically, the problem with unruly passengers has been in relation to
passengers who have been fueled by alcohol. That’s a very different problem than
a cultural issue.”
The number of incidents on-board airlines has been increasing.
From 2007 to 2013, an analysis by the International Air Transport Association
(IATA) found one unruly incident per 1,600 flights. In 2015, it increased to one
incident for every 1,205 flights. Intoxication was identified in about one-quarter of
the reported cases. The majority of the incidents involved verbal altercations, 11
percent involved physical aggregation or damage to the aircraft.
More than half (53 percent) of IATA members surveyed in 2015 said that the
frequency of unruly passengers had
increased in the past five years, and 40
percent had diverted a flight in the past
12 months due to an unruly passenger.
According to the FAA — which
tracks domestic flights as opposed to
all flights tracked by the IATA — there
was one unruly passenger for every
The FAA number reflects “the
lowest it has ever been since the federal
government has tracked this specific
“The airline is truly caught in
the middle of this situation
and doesn’t want to be there.”
—Mark Dombroff, chair of the aviation practice,
• Cultural and political clashes are
occurring on airplanes.
• Safety is the priority of the flight
• Airlines are generally not liable