Airlines have complained about rising cases of unruly passengers and non-compliance with COVID-19 safety protocols, therefore, they are demanding stiffer sanctions from the authorities.

The airlines observed that the global phenomenon has doubled in 2021 with more travelling public uncomfortable with basic safety rules.

Recently, Arik Air deplaned an Asaba-bound passenger in Lagos, who allegedly refused entreaties on face mask and hand sanitiser use onboard.

According to the airline: “On Thursday, December 16, 2021, an Arik Air flight from Asaba, which was originally scheduled to depart for Lagos at 4:50 p.m. was later rescheduled for 8:30p.m. At the commencement of boarding, the first set of passengers to enter the plane was a man and a lady claiming to be the man’s wife.

“The man was without a face mask and the lead crew asked him to comply with the COVID-19 boarding protocol. The passenger not only refused to use his face mask, he also turned down the use of hand sanitiser and pushed the lead crew out of the way.

“After several appeals were made to him, the passenger had to be forced out of the plane by a combined team of Airport Security and Police at 9:15 p.m. Arik Air strongly condemns such unruly behaviour by passengers on board any of its flights and advices that such actions could attract flight ban or sanctions prescribed by the regulatory Authority,” the management stated.

In an informal survey of the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Cabin Operations Safety Technical Group, a member airline reported over 1,000 incidents of non-compliance in a single week. Another calculated a 55 per cent increase in unruly passenger incidents based on the numbers carried. Incidents have even resulted in diversions, including a flight from Paris to Delhi.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had more than 4,600 incident reports between January and early October 2021, of which 72 per cent related to a refusal to comply with the federal mandate to wear a mask. Some 849 of these reports have been investigated versus a yearly average of 142 over the last decade.

IATA’s Assistant Director, Government and Industry Affairs, Tim Colehan, noted that a complex set of new health rules means some increase in non-compliance was inevitable. But this can’t explain it entirely.

Colehan points out that at the time of booking, passengers agree to the terms and conditions. There is messaging at check-in, at the gate, and announcements are usually made on the aircraft. Other factors are clearly at play in the increase in unruly passenger cases.

“One explanation for the hike in incidents is that the context has changed,” says Colehan. “Not wearing a mask is arguably no different to not wearing a seatbelt or not putting your laptop away. They involve a failure to follow instructions.

“But because of the pandemic and the public health implications, not wearing a mask makes it much more personal and has caused confrontation between passengers. It has also led governments, such as the United States, to take a zero-tolerance approach and to encourage incident reporting by crew.”

In the United States, though there is a zero-tolerance policy and FAA fines have topped $1 million since the beginning of 2021, differences between federal and state laws complicate prosecution procedures. Interfering with cabin crew is a federal crime so needs to be dealt with by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), whereas flights involving unruly incidents are typically dealt with by local law enforcement upon landing.

There are similar legal issues in the international arena. The 1963 Tokyo Convention attempted to alleviate any confusion by insisting the right to prosecute resided with the state in which the aircraft was registered. But this can cause problems on landing in a foreign country.

Local authorities sometimes consider that they do not have jurisdiction when the aircraft is registered in another state, or the operator holds a foreign certificate (AOC). Unruly passengers may therefore be free to continue their journey without any sanction for their misbehaviour.