Legal Background About Unruly / Disruptive Passenger

Legal Background About Unruly / Disruptive Passenger

Unruly Passenger , Disruptive Air Passenger

Disruptive behavior by air passengers on commercial airlines has become an increasingly common problem. Any passenger with disruptive behavior, popularly known as unruly/disruptive passenger, is one of the most threats to the aviation safety and security of the passengers who travel by air every year.

On Oct 2020, during boarding of Delta Airlines flight from Miami for Atlanta, an unruly passenger slapped a flight attendant. The problem starts with a pair of passengers refusing to buckle their seat belts and put on their face masks. When I saw that video on YouTube, I suffered from a pain in my heart. If I was an airline CEO, I will write this " in aviation - The customer is NOT always right" and post it on the aircraft entry door.

The one who says "The customer is always right*" has never had to deal directly with unruly air passengers. In aviation, the phrase "The customer is always right" will not work anymore.

* This phrase was originally coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridge's department store in London, and is typically used by businesses to convince customers that they will get good service at this company and convince employees to give customers good service.

Airline Flight Attendant has good emotional intelligence. They sustain their efforts with passengers, especially if one passenger becomes irate, disruptive. They always avoid the need for physical restraint, route diversion, costly delays, and expensive trial processes. But this emotional way maybe not be respected by those passengers, and they go more and more.

In this article, I am going to give you legal background about unruly/disruptive passengers.

Unruly Passenger Meaning

 As defined by ICAO, the term unruly or disruptive refers to passengers who fail to respect the rules of conduct on board aircraft or to follow the instructions of crew members, thereby disturbing good order and discipline on board and compromising safety.

ICAO Annex 17 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation 1944 (the Chicago Convention), Security - Safeguarding International Civil Aviation against Acts of Unlawful Interference (March 2011), defines a Disruptive Passenger as:

A passenger who fails to respect the rules of conduct at an airport or onboard an aircraft or to follow the instructions of the airport staff or crew members and thereby disturbs the good order and discipline at an airport or on board the aircraft.

What Is Considered Unruly or Disruptive Behavior?

On IATA 1st Edition of the Guidance on Unruly Passenger Prevention and Management, IATA has established the following non-exhaustive list of examples of unruly and disruptive behaviors on board:

1- Illegal consumption of narcotics;
2- Refusal to comply with safety instructions

For examples :

  •     Not fastening a seat belt.
  •     Smoking.
  •     Disrupting the safety announcements .etc

3- Bad Verbal confrontation with flight attendants or other passengers.

4- Physical confrontation with flight attendants or other passengers;
5- Uncooperative passenger (examples include interfering with the crew’s duties, refusing to follow instructions to board or leave the aircraft);
6- Making threats (includes all types of threats, whether directed against a person, e.g., threat to injure someone, or intended to cause confusion and chaos, such as statements referring to a bomb threat, or simply any threatening behavior that could affect the safety of the crew, passengers, and aircraft);
7- Sexual abuse/harassment; and

8- Another type of riotous behavior (examples include: screaming, annoying behavior, kicking, and banging heads on seatbacks/tray tables).

Data collected by IATA from 2007 to 2016 from non-mandatory reporting by 190 airlines to its Safety Trend Evaluation Analysis and Data Exchange System shows that consuming Alcohol / Intoxication was the first level of disruptive behaviors then Smoking.

ICAO International Legal Instrument Regarding Unruly Or Disruptive Behavior

The International Aviation Security Conventions adopted under the auspices of the ICAO have the following main objectives:

  •     Definition of the offenses
  •   Apprehension or arrest of the perpetrators and the imposition of severe penalties
  •     Granting of certain powers to the aircraft commander
  •     Defining the competence of states about the prosecution
  •     Exchange of information

Tokyo Convention-1963 [TC63]

Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft (known as the Tokyo Convention because it was signed in Tokyo, Japan, on September 14, 1963, and came into force on December 4, 1969).

This convention provides “that the state of the registry is competent to exercise jurisdiction over offenses committed aboard an aircraft when it is in flight, on the surface of the high seas, or in any other area outside the territory of any state.” The convention applies only “to offenses committed by a person who is on board the aircraft, thereby excluding acts or offenses committed by persons such as saboteurs who remain on the ground.”

What's Missing in Tokyo Convention-1963 [TC63]?

TC63 grants jurisdiction over offenses and other acts committed on board aircraft to the State of registration of the aircraft in question. This causes issues when the Aircraft Commander delivers or disembarks an unruly passenger to the competent authorities which may determine that they do not have jurisdiction (as the State of landing) when the aircraft is registered in another State. Likewise, the police and authorities of the State of registration may have little connection with an incident taking place in another country. 

The result is that the unruly passengers are often released and allowed to continue their journey without facing any sanctions for their misconduct.

States have now recognized that TC63 no longer provides a sufficient legal framework for dealing with unruly passenger behavior due to jurisdictional gaps and the lack of clarity as to what constitutes an offense.

Montreal Protocol 2014 (MP14):


The MP14, adopted on 4 April 2014, amends the Tokyo Convention to provide States with a clearer jurisdictional framework for dealing with unruly passengers, whilst preserving prosecution discretion. Specifically,

  • MP14 gives mandatory jurisdiction to the ‘intended State of landing’ (the scheduled destination). If the offense is sufficiently serious, the State of landing must consider if it is an offense in the State of the operator.


  • MP14 clarifies certain behaviors that should be considered, at a minimum, as offenses and encourages States to take appropriate criminal or other legal proceedings. These include physical assault or a threat to commit such assault against a crew member and refusal to follow a lawful instruction given by or on behalf of the aircraft Commander (for safety purposes).

  •  MP14 recognizes that airlines may have a right to seek compensation for costs incurred as a result of unruly passenger behavior. The presence of this clause should have a strong deterrent value.

Unruly or Disruptive Behavior: ICAO’s levels of threat:

Level 1: Disruptive behavior (verbal);

Level 2: Physically abusive behavior;

Level 3: Life-threatening behavior (or display of a weapon);

Level 4: Attempted or actual breach of the flight crew compartment.


All airline personnel dealing with passengers should receive appropriate information (e.g. legal rights of the Aircraft Commander/crew member/staff member) and adequate training for dealing with unruly passengers (e.g. prevention, negotiation skills, defensive self-defense, reporting, etc.).

They should understand the importance of preventing passengers who exhibit unruly behavior from boarding an aircraft and should be empowered to prevent such passengers from boarding. Judges and police officers working in airport areas should also be trained to provide an adequate legal response to unruly behavior from passengers.

Please, leave your comments down.

Maged Saeed AL-Hadabi

I’m Instructor / Maged Saeed Al-Hadabi. ​ Air Cargo / IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations / Safety Management System Senior Instructor, Auditor [ Yemen Airways] . Approved IATA DGR/ SMS Instructor by Yemen Civil Aviation Authority. We hope you find Aviation Professional website not only informative, but interesting and helpful as well. Leave your comment , thank you.

Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form