How and why flight attendants restrain unruly passengers

Aug 5, 2021

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The return of travel after long periods of lockdown, combined with constantly evolving safety and social distancing policies has had an unfortunate side effect, particularly if you are flying in the United States.

More than 85% of U.S. flight attendants who responded to a recent survey say they have encountered unruly passengers over the first seven months of 2021.

Further, nearly 20% of those who responded say they’ve encountered physical violence on aircraft this year, according to the results of the survey, which was run by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), a major flight attendants union.

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While flight attendants are carefully trained to deescalate situations like these within the tight confines of airplane cabins, occasionally the best diplomacy will not resolve the problem. In these unlikely cases, flight attendants may need to physically restrain the passenger for the remainder of the flight, for the safety of both the unruly passenger, other passengers on the plane, and the crew. This will minimise the chance of any further disruption to the flight and hopefully subdue the passenger in question so that the flight can continue safely.

You may have seen recent videos on social media of such situations and the various methods of restraints used by flight attendants. These can include cable ties, handcuffs, seatbelt extensions, and even duct tape.

Is there a best practice method in these high-pressure situations?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) explained to TPG that restraining a passenger is only ever used as a last resort, where all other methods of de-escalating a situation have failed.

“Before restraining a passenger, the cabin crew will always seek the permission of the Commander (Captain) who will give their authorisation if they perceive a risk to the safety of the flight, the crew or other persons onboard.” Katherine Kaczynska, a spokesperson from IATA said.

“There is no industry standard restraint equipment, and it is up to the airline to consider what they install if anything.”

The AFA also confirmed to TPG that the equipment used to restrain these passengers will differ from airline to airline.

A recent viral video on a Frontier Airlines flight in the United States showed flight attendants using duct tape to restrain a particularly violent passenger, including taping over their mouth. This has sparked debate amongst both crew and travellers over the appropriate measures in such situations.

A flight attendant for Frontier revealed to TPG that restraint (duct) tape is usually the only equipment loaded onto Frontier flights and should only be used as a last resort. Their training is to apply a safety demonstration oxygen mask over the mouth if required to try and subdue the passenger. Having viewed the viral video, this flight attendant believes the application of duct tape was appropriate in the situation as an urgent reaction to the passenger violently spitting and biting the crew during the flight.

Related: Jaded by air travel: What it’s really like to be a flight attendant

We also spoke to crew flying for other airlines. A flight attendant for a major European airline confirmed to TPG that restraints are very much a last resort and the crew’s duty of care to all passengers, no matter how disruptive, is paramount. This extends to providing the passenger with basic food and water depending on the length of the flight, though they will not allow a restrained passenger to visit the bathroom under any circumstances. If they have to go, they have to go right there in their seat.

The airline this flight attendant currently flies for stocks onboard restraint kits for these situations which include handcuffs and long wide straps, but not the cable ties or duct tape you might have seen used by other airlines.

Their training instructs that a passenger’s mouth and throat should not be covered, even if the passenger is being verbally abusive.

If a fellow passenger is making you uncomfortable you should alert a flight attendant as quickly and discreetly as you can. Remember, they are trained to deal with these unusual and unpleasant situations.

Related: Unruly skies: How pilots handle disruptive passengers

In the unlikely situation you are seated next to a passenger that is being restrained, it may well be a very awkward situation, both before and during the restraint. Flight attendants will do their best to reseat surrounding passengers, though on a full flight there may be limited options. It is more likely the unruly passenger will remain in their original seat while other passengers are reseated, rather than the unruly passenger being moved. This is because if the situation has escalated to a point where restraints are prepared, it is dangerous to try and move the passenger to a different part of a confined space, mid-flight.

The flight attendants will keep the passenger restrained for landing, assuming it is safe to do so. They will also gather evidence for the submission of an incident report for authorities after landing.

The unruly passenger is then usually met by law enforcement officials when the plane lands and can face heavy penalties for their disruptive and often dangerous behavior including severe fines.

Featured image by Zach Griff / The Points Guy

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