"Promoting the science of aerospace medicine"

13th of February 2013

Frequent flyer fights: drunken airplane passengers spur new flight regulations

Being trapped in a metal tube suspended miles above the earth is stressful enough. Add in a violent, alcohol-fueled passenger, and a high-flying journey to a faraway place can turn downright traumatizing.

Such was the case for Marina. A lawyer in her 30s who asked that her last name not be used, Marina flew from Moscow to Turkey last year with her small child and ended up with an extremely drunk Russian man as her neighboring passenger. The man fell asleep at first, but conflict arose after takeoff.

Another male traveler, wearing tight jeans and sporting slightly long hair, stood up in the aisle to reach the overhead compartment. The drunk man, who had woken up, began loudly admiring the view of the other man from behind - evidently unaware that the object of his affection was not a woman.

When the drunkard realized his mistake, he began threatening to hit the other man. His friends made him take a break "to cool off" in the bathroom, and all ended peacefully after Marina expressed her discomfort with his hostility.

"I tried to remind him that we are on a plane, that it's scary when a man is losing his temper like that," she told The Moscow News. "When he realized how scared I was, he decided to act like a gallant knight and thankfully fell asleep for the rest of the flight."

Though no one was hurt on Marina's plane, that's not always the case when cabin fever, alcohol, and the willingness to throw some punches combine during a long flight. Several other incidents of drunken airborne aggression have made national news in recent weeks.

In one episode, heavily intoxicated 54-year-old Sergei Kabalov lit up a cigarette on board a flight from Moscow to Egypt in early January. He punched a flight attendant who tried to stop him, kneed an interfering passenger in the face, and attempted to break into the pilot's cabin - all while shouting "I'm a legislator, I'm a soldier in the special forces of the GRU [Russia's foreign intelligence agency], who can kill anyone with two fingers."

Kabalov is neither a legislator nor a GRU agent. On Friday, Russian authorities opened a criminal case against him for attempting to hijack the plane: a charge which carries a maximum penalty of 12 years in prison.

In another recent case, an Aeroflot flight to Thailand was forced to make an emergency landing in Uzbekistan last Sunday when Russian businessman Vyacheslav Ismailov got into a fistfight with another passenger after drinking at least one bottle of liquor he had bought from a duty free store.

Lack of legal consequences

According to Aeroflot General Director Vitaly Savelyev, incidents of violence aboard aircraft are relatively frequent among Russian passengers. Savelyev wrote on his Twitter account last week that there were 490 recorded violations of passenger conduct regulations in 2012 on Aeroflot flights alone. By contrast, there were 101 official incidents of unruly passengers among all airline carriers in the United States last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The difference is especially striking when comparing the amount of air traffic in both countries. In 2011, a total of 730 million passengers flew in the United States - but just over 64 million air passengers in Russia in the same year, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Russian Federal Air Travel Agency.

The U.S., however, has much stricter rules regarding in-flight behavior. Noncompliance with crew members is a federal crime, bearing a possible prison time and a maximum fine of $25,000 per violation. American airlines have a strict zero-tolerance policy for unruly behavior, and are legally allowed to deny ticket purchase to blacklisted passengers.

Legal protection for Russian airlines is less comprehensive. Passengers in Russia are under the jurisdiction of the 1963 Tokyo Convention, which allows aircraft commanders to restrain and forcibly disembark passengers who have "jeopardized the safety of the aircraft or the good order and discipline on board."

The Air Code of the Russian Federation also allows some administrative fines for smoking on board and refusal to obey orders from crew members. The crew may confiscate duty-free alcohol from passengers, but there is no punishment for overconsumption of alcohol on board. Airlines also cannot refuse to sell tickets to passengers who have caused problems in the past.

"Aeroflot has advocated the legalization of blacklists for three years already, but the Air Code forbids airlines from introducing blacklists," Savelyev, Aeroflot's General Director, wrote last week on Twitter. "We have a conditional blacklist of 1821 people - but we can't deny them transportation, since there is no legal basis."

Ticket price concerns

The State Duma is now considering the issue of passenger safety on aircraft, and plans to draft an official proposal this spring. The draft may include provisions for 3-5 year blacklists for unruly passengers, add harsher penalties for conduct violations to the Air Code, add appropriate articles to Russia's Civil and Criminal Codes, and introduce restrictions on in-flight and duty free alcohol sales, said Igor Barinov, chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee.

"At this moment, airline crews are basically without rights," Barinov said at a press conference at RIA Novosti last week. "This situation must be seriously corrected. We don't need to think, we need to pass the law."

While many people agree that more regulation is needed, the breadth of legislative action being considered by the Duma has drawn criticism. A ban on alcohol sales - which are a significant source of revenue for both airports and airlines - could lead to an increase in ticket prices as a means of compensation, said Vnukovo airport chairman Vitaly Vantsev at a press conference last Wednesday.

"[Retailers] come to us and ask for rate reductions. These costs we will certainly pass on to rates and charges," Vantsev warned.