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How flight attendants deal with unruly passengers

It’s a picture that launched thousands of Facebook shares, tweets and online comments: An air traveler who was allegedly so out of control that he had to be taped to his seat is also sparking curiosity about how flight crews deal with unruly passengers.

Icelandair will file charges with Icelandic police against a man who was hitting, screaming and spitting at other fliers while yelling profanities on a flight from Reykjavik to New York on Thursday, airline spokesman Michael Raucheisen told NBC News.

The man was restrained and after the plane landed at JFK International, a photo of a male passenger with tape around his chest and mouth quickly went viral when it appeared on a blog run by New Yorker Andy Ellwood, who said he received the picture from an acquaintance who witnessed the incident.

The startling image prompted many questions from air travelers who wondered whether such creative use of tape would ever be sanctioned on a U.S. airline.

First, you should know flight attendants on U.S. carriers do have the ability and the tools to tie up an unruly passenger when necessary, but they would not attach the troublemaker to the seat, said Veda Shook, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

“If we have to physically restrain someone, sure, we’re trained to do that, but not in this manner,” Shook told NBC News, adding that she’s seen prisoners being transported in handcuffs but never cuffed to any part of the plane for their safety.

“If there were an emergency, how would he get out of there?”

It is standard to find to find flex cuffs -- or plastic ties – on board flights in case a passenger needs to be retrained, Shook said.

It’s also not uncommon to find tape on a plane, although it’s meant for more routine uses, like hanging up passengers’ drink orders or fixing a broken suitcase handle, said veteran flight attendant Heather Poole, author of “Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet.”

No tape? No problem. There are many other alternatives on board if an impromptu restraint were to be needed.

“Flight attendants are pretty clever.  If we don't have tape, we'll find something else to use: men's ties, shoe laces, seat belts,” Poole said.

All of the flight attendants who spoke with NBC News noted that unruly passengers are rare and that they’ve never come close to having to restrain a flier. Still, the government deals with dozens of out-of-control air travelers each year.

There were 131 cases of unruly passengers on U.S. airlines in 2011, the last full year for which statistics are available, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That’s down from a peak of 330 cases in 2004.

FAA regulations do not require that airlines carry items such as plastic ties. "Flight attendant security  training is conducted according to FAA and TSA standards, which we do not discuss," the agency said in a statement. 

While federal air marshals fly under cover on some routes to protect passengers from terrorists, airlines have their own protocols on how to deal with travelers who may have had too much to drink or are behaving badly. Dealing with unruly passengers is not a function of the Transportation Security Administration, said agency spokesman David Castelveter.

For all of their training, flight crews can’t always anticipate how passengers will act, so they often have to rely on their best judgment, said veteran flight attendant Rene Foss, author of “Around the World in a Bad Mood!”

“When you’re flying at 39,000 feet, you can’t just call 911, so you have to figure it out,” Foss said.

Part of the strategy is knowing who you can enlist to help. Foss and Shook said they routinely size up passengers during boarding to mentally note who might be able to assist in an emergency.

“If you know that the Green Bay Packers are traveling in the main cabin and there’s some trouble up in front, you might want to get one of those big boys to come up and help you,” Foss said. “It’s just situational awareness.”

Flight attendants also try to de-escalate and diffuse tense situations to avoid getting anywhere near the point where someone has to be restrained, Shook noted.

When passengers do act out, alcohol is often the culprit, she added. The unruly Icelandair passenger “drank all of his duty free liquor on the flight,” Ellwood wrote in the blog post accompanying the infamous photo.

Poole recalled a traveler who was on his fourth beer less than an hour into a flight and who told her he could drink many more. The flier backed off when she balked at his request for more booze, but others aren’t so calm when they don't get what they want, Poole noted.

“That's when we might accidentally on purpose forget to serve them a drink, or tell them we've run out, or we might even start mixing way more Coke and a lot less (alcohol) until we're only serving a tiny drop of liquor in the glass,” she said.