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You shouldn’t confront unruly passengers — but there are exceptions

Passengers have intervened in recent incidents, but that doesn’t mean flight crews always want help

(Ana Albero/for The Washington Post)
4 min

The 37-year-old man on a Frontier Airlines flight to Orlando was becoming a problem. As he threatened fellow passengers and claimed his DNA was being taken, flight attendants moved people from seats near him.

Then the call from flight attendants went out, according to a criminal complaint, asking for “assistance from able-bodied passengers” to help restrain him.

It’s not every day that fellow passengers are asked to step in during an in-flight meltdown. But the Feb. 9 Frontier example wasn’t the only one that month.

A few days later, when a traveler on a D.C.-bound American Airlines flight tried to open the plane door, another passenger said she heard requests for “big guys to come to the front of the plane.” Bystanders and crew subdued the 50-year-old man.

The ‘no-fly’ list and unruly passengers, explained

Disruptive behavior has reached unprecedented levels in recent years, often involving passengers who refuse to follow the federal mask mandate for transportation. As of Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration had received 1,035 reports of unruly passengers this year. Last year’s tally reached 5,981.

What should passengers do if they find themselves in the middle of disruptive behavior? Don’t overreact, experts say.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in an email that fliers should not engage, unless there’s imminent danger of physical harm.

Instead, she said, they should notify flight attendants — who are trained in de-escalation techniques — by telling one when they pass by, going to the galley area or ringing the call button.

“If a fellow passenger is disruptive, the flight attendants will handle that and prefer no interference, unless the situation becomes violent,” Jeff Price, professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said in an email. “Otherwise, the involvement of other passengers before a physical altercation (or threat of one), can escalate the situation.”

No, unruly passenger: You can’t physically open a plane door midflight

Most airlines declined to answer questions from The Washington Post about the topic.

“We ask that customers follow the instructions of Southwest employees during any type of incident or event as each situation can be unique,” Southwest Airlines said in a statement.

Even if a situation escalates, passengers may not need to step in. Federal air marshals are placed on domestic and international flights, though details about their numbers and deployment are not released. The president of the Southwest flight attendants union asked her airline last year to demand that the government increase the number of air marshals on flights and ask that they get involved when a crew member is threatened. The Transportation Security Administration also offers self-defense training to flight attendants.

Nelson said a fellow passenger only should intervene if a flight attendant asks them to do so. She said they might be asked to move to another seat.

“In extreme incidents, passengers may be directed to help restrain another passenger,” she said in her email.

Price said that could look like a specific request to grab someone’s hands, or whatever else the crew needs. In the Frontier scuffle, the group ultimately put zip ties around the hands of the violent passenger and bound his feet with plastic wrap.

Airlines have seen an unprecedented rise in disruptive passengers. Experts say it could get worse.

Passengers have been intervening in such incidents for decades — sometimes with serious results. In 2000, a 19-year-old passenger who broke a Southwest cockpit door died after he was restrained by several passengers. Prosecutors declined to file charges in his death, the New York Times reported.

Nelson said travelers who are asked to help should be clear right way about how they are willing to pitch in.

“It’s rare that we would ask for help because most people want a safe, uneventful flight and it’s a small percentage of people who cause conflict or problems,” she said. “If you don’t want to help, let us know immediately so we can direct someone else in an emergency.”

Price said, “The only passengers obligated to do anything are those that sit in the exit row, that they open the doors during an emergency.”