January 8, 2013
On a flight from Reykjavik bound for New York last Thursday, an unruly
passenger was zip-tied and duct-taped to his seat as well as across his
mouth. According to a report by CNN.com, flight staff restrained the
passenger who was "hitting, screaming and spitting at other passengers,
while yelling profanities," the airline spokesperson told CNN. The use of
duct tape and plastic zip-ties as restraints was standard protocol for the
Can airline staff legally restrain unruly passengers aboard flights? The
answer is yes. If the passenger is jeopardizing the safety of crew or other
passengers and received warnings to cease their behavior, and/or the
passenger is/has committed a crime, flight personnel may restrain the
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With no police in the air, airline staff are responsible for flight safety.
If a passenger becomes unruly and use of force or restraint is necessary,
flight crew and even other passengers themselves have worked together to
keep troublesome fliers under control. Once the passenger has been
restrained, local authorities are contact by flight staff to take over upon
Although reports of airline misconduct certainly resonate with passengers, a
report from NASA's AMES Research Center detailing instances of disruptive
customers on flights show just what airline staff have to put up with on a
bad day. Within the reports, flight attendants in particular have dealt with
everything from dog attacks, passenger violence, theft and more. In
response, passengers have been restrained and even handcuffed for the
duration of flights.
As shown by the flight aboard Iceland Air, international flight crews are
also able to detain passengers. Transportation bureaus in nations outside
the United States provide their own guidelines for dealing with such
troublemakers. Transport Canada, for example, has a brochure (PDF) for how
flight crew should deal with unruly passengers, explaining that "use of
force" should be the last available option and describing how attendants can
collect evidence if a crime has been committed.
Private associations of airline personnel also issue their own guidelines to
crew members for dealing with disruptive fliers. The U.K. Flight Safety
Commission, for example, assembled an extensive guide (PDF) for dealing with
problem passengers, including tips for preventing an incident and detailing
different approaches for different situations.
When flight crew do resort to restraining passengers physically, it tends to
be for extreme situations, as was the case with the Iceland Air flight.
Last September, a passenger aboard a United flight was restrained with belts
after repeatedly sexually harassing and attempting to assault women aboard
the flight. The following month, a drunk man coming off a 50-day bender was
restrained aboard a flight after attempting to open the airplane door during
Flight crew can be equipped with handcuffs or other restraints, but the
Iceland Air flight wasn't the first time that attendants have had to get
creative. In 2008, a woman bound for a flight to North Carolina was duct-
taped after she began physically assault crew and other passengers, and
ankle cuffs failed to restrain her sufficiently.
Although these episodes may make the situation appear as though disruptive
customers are increasingly common, according to the Federal Aviation
Administration, instances of unruly passengers have decreased to 131 in 2011
, down from a high of 330 in 2004.