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Time to get tough on unruly airline passengers

It has taken Singapore four years to follow up on the recommendations of the Montreal Protocol 2014, which is an amendment to the Tokyo Convention 1963 on Offences and Certain Other Acts On Board Aircraft, tightening up its laws to deal with unruly airline passengers. That may seem long overdue, but it is not too late.

As a major air hub in the region, Changi Airport will not be spared from unruly passengers in an arriving or departing aircraft, whether foreign or locally registered, says the author.

As a major air hub in the region, Changi Airport will not be spared from unruly passengers in an arriving or departing aircraft, whether foreign or locally registered, says the author.

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It has taken Singapore four years to follow up on the recommendations of the Montreal Protocol 2014, which is an amendment to the Tokyo Convention 1963 on Offences and Certain Other Acts On Board Aircraft, tightening up its laws to deal with unruly airline passengers.

That may seem long overdue, but it is not too late, considering that many member states of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) have yet to ratify the protocol.

Nor is it too soon, in light of there being over 58,000 reported incidents of disruptive behaviour on board aircraft between 2007 and 2016. Of greater concern is how the incidents have become more violent.

Indeed, air rage has become a global problem. Such unruly behaviour threatens safety and security, adversely affects the travel experience of compliant passengers, and disrupts operations that may result in flight delays, cancellations or diversions.

A flight disruption can cost an airline as much as S$300,000.

Yet it is disappointing to note the slow ratification of the Montreal Protocol to address the issue.

So far there have been only four ratifications and nine accessions. A minimum of 22 ratifications is needed for the protocol to come into force.

It is not surprising that in matters of a legal nature, particularly when there may be cross-border complications, countries are inclined to tread cautiously.

But chances are good, since there are 26 signatures subject to ratification. The Tokyo Convention 1963 itself took six years to be ratified.

The good news is that Singapore has started the ratification process. Leading to it, Singapore this month passed a Bill establishing the nation's State of landing jurisdiction.

The authority can then treat any disruptive act committed on board an aircraft which subsequently lands here as if it is committed in Singapore.

There have been too many cases of unruly passengers who get away scot free because jurisdiction was limited to only the State of registered aircraft. This means that a country cannot take action against an unruly passenger if he was flying on a foreign airline and subsequently lands in that particular country.

It is a loophole that the Montreal Protocol aims to plug.

According to the International Air Transport Association, over 60 per cent of airlines surveyed in 2013 attributed the failure to prosecute unruly passengers at foreign destinations to the lack of jurisdiction.

Some states are also wary about possible conflicting jurisdictions.

Other provisions of the Singapore Bill will come into force when the 2014 Montreal Protocol is ratified. These include:

1.      Empowerment of Singapore to exercise the State of the operator jurisdiction. The definition of “Singapore-controlled aircraft” is revised to include an aircraft that is leased without crew to a lessee whose principal place of business or whose permanent residence is Singapore.

2.      Empowerment of the commander of an aircraft to take appropriate action at his discretion to contain a situation. Any crew member including the air marshal and passengers may also act without authorisation of the commander to protect the safety of the aircraft or its property and occupants.

This makes sense where safety is paramount and timely action is imperative. In the current context, the crew may find themselves in an onerous position of having first to determine if certain actions are permitted within the legal framework of the relevant State, fearing recriminations for overreacting as a consequence.

3.      Protection from personal liability to be accorded to these personnel who act in good faith.

This is because airline crew may be reluctant to handle a potentially charged situation for fear of being held personally liable for any untoward outcome.

While these provisions legitimise a contracting State's right for action, there will however continue to be grey areas, considering the unpredictable nature of human behaviour, no matter how comprehensively aviation authorities try to define an unruly passenger.

Failure to follow the instructions of crew members as a criterion is too wide an umbrella and can be opened to dispute.

More specifically, disruptive behaviour includes assault of crew or other passengers, sexual abuse or harassment, abusive consumption of alcohol and narcotics, refusal to comply with safety instructions, and making threats that could affect the safety of the flight.

The David Dao incident that happened on United Airlines in 2017 is an example of how an otherwise normal offloading procedure in an overbooked situation quickly escalated into a nasty affair when the passenger was forcibly removed from the aircraft by security officers, raising questions about the handling.

The airline's assessment that the passenger's behaviour was disruptive did not assuage public anger at the undignified manner by which he was treated.

Thus, having the laws in place cannot be the solution's end-all.

The importance of adequate training cannot be over-emphasised – not only on how to de-escalate an ugly situation and the proper use of restraint techniques but also to be able to identify early signs of disruptive behaviour on ground as a preventive measure.

For example, intoxication has been found to be a major cause of disruptive behaviour on board an aircraft due not only to in-flight but also to pre-flight consumption.

In this connection, the International Air Transport Association is working with airports to ensure the responsible sale of alcohol.

The law must stand behind retailers and outlets in exercising their right not to sell or dispense alcohol to anyone under these circumstances, and airlines must be prepared not to allow such a passenger to board a flight.

As a major air hub in the region, Changi Airport will not be spared from unruly passengers in an arriving or departing aircraft, whether foreign or locally registered.

Singapore is doing right in ratifying the Montreal Protocol 2014 as a responsible member of the global aviation community.

The whole purpose of the protocol is to ensure that unruly passengers face the appropriate consequences for their disruptive behaviour. It is time to get tough with such offenders.

Where air rage is concerned, one case is already too many.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Leo is an aviation veteran and published author.

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