When U.K.-based airline Jet2 announced this week it had billed a passenger the equivalent of $106,000 for allegedly trying to open the airplane doors during flight, among other behavior that forced her flight to return to the airport with a military escort, travelers everywhere paid attention.
“We will vigorously pursue to recover the costs that we incurred as a result of this divert, as we do with all disruptive passengers,” the airline’s CEO, Steve Heapy, said in a statement. “As a family-friendly airline, we take an absolutely zero-tolerance approach to disruptive behavior, and we hope that this sobering incident, with its very serious consequences, provides a stark warning to others who think that they can behave in this fashion.”
But the case — in which 25-year-old Chloe Haines was accused of “aggressive, abusive and dangerous behavior” — is far from the only example of an airline going after passengers for damages, especially as the global industry steps up its efforts to rein in unruly and disruptive behavior in the air.
The International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, calls unruly passengers “a significant problem.” The group says there was one incident for every 1,053 flights in 2017, with more than 66,000 reported between 2007 and 2017. For the past several years, IATA has been pushing for “the wider use of civil and administrative penalties so that unruly passengers can be held to account for their misbehavior.”
Aviation attorney Jol Silversmith, who is based in Washington, said he has seen “carriers becoming more aggressive with passengers who they believe have broken the rules.” A few years ago, Silversmith tracked three years’ worth of “air rage” incidents that resulted in federal criminal charges to determine their outcome.
Passengers who get in trouble on a plane can face several penalties beyond public shaming. Airlines can (and occasionally do) seek restitution for the costs of flight diversions either through criminal prosecution or in civil litigation.
In the United States, passengers could also be subject to fines of up to $25,000 per violation from the Federal Aviation Administration. Up-to-date data was not available Friday, but the New York Daily News reported in December that the agency had fined 76 passengers a total of $324,589 over the previous five years.
Chris Smith, partner at the Air Law Firm in London, said the cost of diverting a flight to deal with a passenger’s behavior typically ranges from $15,000 to $100,000 depending on factors including the size of the plane, landing fees, fuel charges, and whether the aircraft needs to stay on the ground overnight. He said he handles between six and 10 cases a year on behalf of airlines pursuing damages from customers.
“To be honest, the number of passengers who I have sued on behalf of airlines, a large majority of them cannot and will never be able to pay the bills that are presented to them,” he said. “But this is more about making the point ... . It’s about sending a very public message to deter future bad behavior.”
There is no authoritative record of cases in which passengers have been forced to pay restitution, but here are some other recent high-profile examples:
- Kyong Chol Kim, 48, of South Korea, was sentenced earlier this month to six months in jail and ordered to pay Hawaiian Airlines more than $172,000 for forcing a flight bound for South Korea to return to Honolulu, according to the Associated Press. He was reportedly drunk on whiskey and lunged at a flight attendant who confronted him about mistreating a child next to him.
- Earlier this year, a British man was ordered by a judge to pay Canadian airline WestJet more than $16,000 after pleading guilty to resisting arrest and failing to comply with safety instructions. David Stephen Young had several drinks before his flight from Calgary to London, and grew so disruptive with the flight crew and a passenger that the plane dumped 20,000 pounds of fuel over Alberta and returned to Calgary.
- Two years ago, a judge ruled that James August, of New Jersey, owed Hawaiian Airlines nearly $98,000 after his flight to New York had to return to Honolulu, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. August had earlier pleaded guilty to interfering with flight crew members and attendants, the paper reported, for threatening people on the flight and slapping a flight attendant on the shoulder. He too was intoxicated, according to reports.
Smith said 99 percent of such cases involve passengers who are intoxicated themselves or passengers who are reacting to someone else under the influence.
“Normally, alcohol is the root of all evils when it comes to this thing,” he said.