Unruly passengers

Hi, Everyone.

I’ve been reading about a recent rise in incidents with unruly passengers on commercial flights, and I saw that the flight attendants’ union has just made a public call for more safeguards against this type of behavior: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/28/unruly-behavior-from-passengers-has-never-been-this-bad-union-chief.html

I am curious if any of you who are flying for airlines have personally noticed any kind of increase in these incidents. Furthermore, I am curious how pilots are trained to deal with these types of situations in-flight. There is a part of me that would like to think that if I was a captain and one of the flight attendants came to the cockpit with a bloody nose and two teeth missing, I would land immediately at the nearest appropriate airport and ensure that whoever assaulted my fellow crewmember was taken promptly into custody. I also know that I have no idea what really goes into making decisions like that, and it’s easy to say that’s what you would do when you don’t actually have to do it (and answer for it with your airline).

My apologies if this topic is unpleasant, but it is something I really do wonder about. I wouldn’t expect to encounter many of these situations in my career, but it seems like it could happen once or twice. What’s the thought process for a cockpit crew around something like this? What is the line where you would actually divert for an unruly passenger vs. continuing to the destination and having law enforcement meet you at the gate? Is there any training or protocols for these situations, or is it 100% a judgement call?

Thank you for sharing any insight you may have.



I don’t have any firsthand accounts of unruliness of this nature, but I do know that tensions are rising as more people are returning to airline travel and national mask mandates are slowly being lifted. The only events that have occurred on my flights is vaping in the cabin and refusal to wear the mask properly which leads to a possible ban from future travel on Alaska.

In this particular case, the physical altercation occurred on the ground in San Diego while taxiing to the gate. So, there was no need to divert.

Had the flight been airborne, obviously the variables would be different. The decision to divert is always the Captain’s prerogative. However, anytime I have had to declare a medical emergency I was notified of the situation when the aircraft was near top of descent. Therefore, it was more expeditious to just continue to the destination. As I fly regionally, our flights aren’t that long, but yes, it would be wise to divert, if able, in a situation like this to provide medical services to the injured and to remove the abusive passenger from the flight.

Flight Attendants have a tough job, a thankless job. They don’t make the rules, but they have been tasked to enforce them. Multiple announcements are made that people ignore. As a rule, I will withhold speculation of the events that lead up to the physical altercation.


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Great question. Whether the subject is unpleasant or otherwise, it is a reality and something most pilots don’t really think about while they’re training and building time (although when I was getting checked out to instruct with ATP there was an instructor named Rich Tillery (awesome guy) who did an excellent job portraying a student who goes crazy! VERY realistic!).

While we do absolutely train for passenger disturbances, they are by far the only thing I really dread (medical emergencies as well). The problem of course is you’re dealing with humans dealing with humans and it can go everywhere from a non-event to a full blown war in back with people getting seriously injured. Further as the pilots, while we’re responsible for the safety of everyone on our airplane, we’re actually somewhat blind as to what’s actually happening in back. We’re reliant on intel from the Flight Attendants which as with all things can be subjective.

As I said this is something we train for. In fact a few years back in recurrent training that was the “emergency” we were given in our LOE (Line Operational Evaluation aka final exam). Most security related info is considered SSI (Sensitive Secure Info) and cannot be discussed in detail on a public forum. What I can say is there is guidance given based on the level of disturbance and behavior and pilots are expected to follow the guidance along with (as always) use their best judgment.

What is good to see is the penalties also seem to be going up and hopefully that will give someone a second thought before they start some nonsense. Letting pax know if they don’t calm down immediately law enforcement will be waiting for them at the gate is a great tranquilizer.


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Thank you both for the responses. I really appreciate the opportunity to get insight into the thought processes of real airline pilots. These are the kind of situations that aren’t often talked about.

I’m glad to know this is something pilots are given at least some preparation for, although I recognize these scenarios are highly variable and often subjective so it’s impossible to have a hard and fast protocol. One of my previous jobs was as a bouncer at a very busy college sportsbar and I don’t miss dealing with abusive customers one bit. In fact, one of the (many) things that appeals to me about flying is the idea of being locked away from the customers with an entire staff between me and them. That being said, I know the captain always has responsibility for the safety of everyone onboard, and I recognize that situations may arise when he or she must intervene. I’m sure it can be a very tough call. Would you worry about getting “in trouble” for a decision to divert, or would you expect the airline to support your decision?

It amazes me how people could be so entitled as to cause scenes like this. Regardless of one’s attitudes about masks, it seems like a small price to play for the privilege of air travel during a pandemic. Furthermore, they should’ve known the rules when they booked the ticket. I definitely support harsh penalties for people who abuse that privilege, and I have tremendous respect for flight attendants for the work they do.

Thanks again, as always, for your quick and thoughtful responses.


Noah this is a great question. First and foremost the FARs give Capt emergency authority to pretty much do whatever they like in the name of safety. Thing is that doesn’t mean you won’t have to do some explaining. In my experience if you can articulate why you did what you did you’ll be fine. There may be a “well next time you might want to consider…” but there’s seldom any discipline of you’ve acted responsibly.

The other thing is these incidents don’t happen in a vacuum and they’re seldom “MAYDAY MAYDAY” EMERGENCY DECENT events. In most cases you’ll have some time to consult and get input not only from your crew but from dispatch as well. While again ultimately its the Capt’s decision, if you’ve got the input from everyone concerned, it not only helps with the decision it also supports your case if it’s questioned.

Again as I said these are the events I really don’t enjoy. If your engine catches fire there’s a very clear procedure to follow. When an FA calls and says “someone is going crazy back here!” there’s nothing in the index for that!



I personally have not had to deal with any of these types of issues. As the others have said though, we have guidance on how to deal with these things and the company and the FAA both really support pilots and the decisions they make.

I have had very few incidents of people acting up and they usually settle down pretty quickly when they are spoken to.


Thank you for this explanation, Adam. It makes a lot of sense. I’ve always wondered about the pressure captains might feel to resist diverting in these types of situations.

This is a random example, but I heard once that one reason Ryanair pilots were so notorious for hard landings was because they were heavily discouraged from go-arounds because of cost and pressure to be on time from the airline. I never knew how much truth there was to it but the thought of outside pressure influencing decisions involving safety was always something that struck me as problematic. Same thing with something like skipping de-icing to avoid a delay. Have you noticed any kind of culture shift around this during your career?

Thanks for the response, Chris. Like most things, I know the dramatic incidents receive a disproportionate amount of attention. Nobody reports on the thousands of passengers who behave themselves every day! I was as much curious about the thought process of dealing with a “to divert or not to divert” situation as anything else, although I figured I’d ask about the rising trend of passenger misbehavior just to see if anybody had experience with that specific type of situation. Glad to hear none of you have had to deal with anyone too crazy!


Not in the least. One of the things I enjoy most as an airline pilot is the fact that I know for certain, when it pertains to safety, the company, the FAA and the Union all have my back.

While obviously the airtime strives to maintain their schedules and encourages pilots to be punctual and get out and in on-time, that in no way ever means taking shortcuts to facilitate that goal. In truth many studies have been done on the subject and the number one source of pressure pilots feel comes from themselves. Most of us are Type A and are very goal oriented. I’ve been doing this a while and when the clock starts getting close to “go time” I absolutely start getting antsy and start asking what the problem is? That said I’ve gone out late many times and have never been disciplined or even questioned. The pressure again is all internal. Further if the hold up is related to safety in any way the clock goes out the window. If a pilot were to risk the lives of his pax by NOT de-icing to maintain the schedule (fear or not) they should no longer be a pilot. I do know a pilot years ago who was reprimanded for de-icing an airplane but it wasn’t because he was late it was because the plane didn’t require de-icing and he clearly didn’t understand that (and de-icing fluid’s expensive). Safety is one thing, ignorance is another.

Now you mention Ryanair. While I had never heard of the landing thing there are far worse horror stories of how poorly they treat their pilots. In fact I had the pleasure of meeting the head of the Irish Airline Pilot Association 2yrs ago and the stories he told were beyond horrific and flat out criminal. He basically called all of us here in the US “whiny brats who have no idea how good we have it!”. And in reality he’s right.


Thank you for this information. I am glad to hear that your experience has always been genuinely safety first. That’s reassuring as a passenger and as a hopeful career pilot.

What you said about internal pressure is fascinating. Makes perfect sense. Just about everyone in this profession I have met so far seems to hold themselves to a very high standard.

I am sorry to hear about the state of the profession in Ireland. I certainly don’t intend to take for granted any opportunity I may get in the US airline industry. I also don’t mean to perpetuate any rumors about any company’s pilots or procedures, but the legend of the Ryanair hard landing is one I have heard more than once, and I’ve also heard sincere attempts to explain it.

Thanks for keeping the answers unclassified and clean from SSI. Good job! (Non-sarcastically and very honest thanks)

  • A retired FLEO
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