A rare, once-a-generation diplomatic conference is planned for next month in a bid to update international law on dealing with unruly passengers. Likely to be held in Montreal, Canada, the headquarters city of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the diplomatic conference is the culmination of a five-year process to revise the 50-year-old Tokyo Convention, a process triggered by an International Air Transport Association (IATA) proposal in 2009.
Reported unruly-passenger behavior incidents have increased dramatically since records started to be kept by IATA in 2007, passing 6,000 incidents in 2011, the most recent year for which IATA has disclosed data. In 2008, barely 1,000 incidents were reported to their Safety Trend Evaluation, Analysis & Data Exchange System (STEADES) database.
Michael Gill, IATA director, aviation environment, suggested at a press conference in December that, “Unruly behavior reflects a broader societal problem where anti-social behavior is becoming more and more prevalent.” In the confined environment of a commercial aircraft in flight, though, unruly behavior “takes on a whole different nature.”
According to Gill, the unruly passenger problem is global, not focused on any particular type of airline business model, or class of seat. “It’s as much a business-class problem as economy.”
Gill said two necessary updates to the 1963 Tokyo Convention involve legal jurisdiction and flight crew immunity. The jurisdiction issue deals with archaic wording. The Tokyo Convention grants jurisdiction over passenger offenses to the State of Registration (SoR). However, today, about 40 percent of aircraft are leased, so the SoR may have no relation to the country from which the airline operates or the one in which the aircraft lands.
Why is this a problem? Gill cited an example of an international flight in June on which a female passenger was restrained “because of violent and abusive behavior.” However, upon landing, the local police would not charge the woman and refused even to interview her because they lacked jurisdiction.
“Over time, the State of Registration will apply only to the handful of states where the aircraft leasing business is focused,” said Gill. “IATA is lobbying to have the jurisdiction provision of the Convention extended to reflect the reality of airline business practices today.”
The immunity issue deals with what IATA views as unclear wording, subject to broad interpretation by local authorities. Article 6 of the Tokyo Convention states that the aircraft commander may impose “reasonable measures” on passengers who have committed, or are about to commit, an offense or unlawful act.
“How do you define ‘reasonable’?” asked Gill. The short answer is that courts around the world have been inconsistent in what they consider to be reasonable actions by the pilot in command. He indicated that, “If they don’t feel 100 percent support from the airline,” pilots and flight attendants might be reluctant to engage unruly passengers. “Airlines need to give full support, financially and emotionally.”
Another realm in which IATA believes justice is inconsistently administered is passenger rights. Tony Tyler, IATA director general and CEO, called European Commission Regulation 261, which establishes rules on flight delays, cancellations and denied boarding, “our biggest passenger nightmare.” The European Parliament is reviewing the regulation in the coming year. However, Tyler said, “Even though many causes of delays are completely outside the control of the airline, the Parliament [looks likely to] limit [such] extraordinary circumstances to external strikes and massive disruptions.”
IATA lists 53 countries worldwide with formal passenger rights laws or declarations. “When things go wrong, we don’t want to compound things with confusing or conflicting regulations on how passengers should be treated.” But Tyler said, with the proliferation of differing passenger rights rules, “the chances of that happening are growing.”
One rule IATA is lobbying governments to modify is tarmac delay, such as the U.S. rule limiting delays to three hours for domestic flights, and four for international flights. Implemented in 2010 in response to horror stories of passengers being trapped on grounded planes for several hours, the rule can trigger a penalty of up to (U.S.) $27,500 per passenger. However, “A violation doesn’t result in any compensation to passengers,” noted IATA general counsel Jeffrey N. Shane. “It results in compensation to the government. It’s a pretty draconian rule.”
Rather than risk heavy fines, airlines now opt to cancel flights. “If you were a passenger, would you prefer to wait or not fly at all?” asked Tyler.
IATA also has several programs in development that it hopes will improve the passenger experience. Its Checkpoint of the Future program, now re-branded as “Smart Security” in alliance with Airports Council International, is moving into an integration phase this year with tests at London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol airports. IATA head of passenger experience, Paul Behan, claimed airports might be able to start reducing requirements to remove laptops and liquids from their carry-on bags. “Scanner technology has changed radically from even two or three years ago,” he said.
Qantas and British Airways are testing a “permanent” reusable electronic bag tag for frequent travelers, which could be updated via smartphone. Meanwhile, for infrequent travelers, a home-printed bag tag may become an option soon.