IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How airports deal with problem passengers

Every experienced traveler has a story about disruptive passengers, as do most front-line airport staff, making them almost the stuff of legend — and an ongoing challenge for the air transport industry.
In tense situations, actions by airports and airlines to provide customer-oriented service can douse the flames of confrontation and prevent disruptive passengers from causing incidents.
In tense situations, actions by airports and airlines to provide customer-oriented service can douse the flames of confrontation and prevent disruptive passengers from causing incidents. AP Photo
/ Source:

Every experienced traveler has a story about disruptive passengers, as do most front-line airport staff, making them almost the stuff of legend — and an ongoing challenge for the air transport industry.

The term ‘air rage’ was first used in the late 1990s to describe the increasing number of incidents involving unruly passengers on flights. Sadly, it is still a familiar phrase today, as a number of men and women continue to behave badly onboard aircraft.

But while many of the more headline-grabbing incidents have occurred in the air, there is no shortage of horror stories on the ground, reports Routes News.

Recently a passenger transiting Nuremberg Airport in Germany nearly died after drinking a bottle of vodka at a security checkpoint rather than surrendering it under the new liquids and gels (LAGs) rules. Police and medical staff were forced to intervene and the man was hospitalized.

Even minor disruptions can potentially be costly. In a situation where a security checkpoint is temporarily closed down, lines can quickly build, leading to service and operational issues. In more extreme scenarios entire terminals are evacuated or the airfield gets locked down.

Craig Bradbrook, director of security and facilitation for the Airports Council International (ACI), says the consequences depend on the circumstances. Although a problem caused by a single passenger can normally be contained fairly swiftly, things can easily escalate if numbers of passengers are involved.

“There have been incidents where an aircraft has developed a technical problem prior to push back, resulting in the cancellation of the flight, and the passengers have refused to disembark until they have negotiated compensation terms with the airline,” said Bradbrook.

“Similarly, there have been ‘sit-in’ protests in airport lounges of disgruntled passengers. Flights may be delayed if a problem passenger is denied boarding at the last moment and their baggage has to be off-loaded.”

Who should take responsibility?
The challenge starts with identifying who should take responsibility for an incident. David Herriman, head of safety management at Düsseldorf Airport — which reported just five incidents in 2007 against a total passenger throughput of 17.8 million — says problem passengers on the ground are an issue for both airlines and airports.

“Both are interested in avoiding difficulties on the ground as well as in the air,” said Herriman. “And in Düsseldorf, the airlines, the airport, the police and other parties involved work together very closely. For example, we have developed a common procedure to inform the stakeholders about a problem passenger: a standardized reporting channel.”

ACI’s Bradbrook believes every case has to be judged individually. “If, for example, the problem passenger is disgruntled about being off-loaded or bumped off a flight, it is technically a contractual dispute between the airline and passenger,” he said.

“The airport and the police would not normally get involved, provided that there is no 'breach of the peace.' However, if the passenger becomes disorderly, then police would get involved to maintain order and the airport duty staff would also probably get involved to ensure that this incident did not impact on other terminal operations,” said Bradbrook.

The muddied waters of responsibility are no surprise, given they reflect a bewildering array of possible causes for the disruption. These range from the ever-present threat of terrorism to the rather more mundane pangs of nicotine withdrawal.

Other factors at play include drunkenness, medical conditions and travel-related stress. Is a passenger appearing to be ‘disruptive’ simply one unfamiliar with the airport environment, unsure of security requirements, unaware of gate locations and oblivious to boarding protocol?

Perhaps they are simply jet-lagged. One person’s problem passenger may be another’s nervous flyer.

Procedures and training for dealing with problems
Given such diversity, it is difficult to define a comprehensive system for dealing with the problem. “From my experience, airports, security organizations, airlines and police do have their own procedures for dealing with such incidents,” said Bradbrook.

“There is close co-operation between the stakeholders at major airports in managing the response to 'problem' passengers and I believe that the procedures are fairly standard from one airport to another," he said. "The police do train with the airport, airline front-line staff and supervisors to practice their response to a variety of security and safety incidents.”

This raises the bigger issue of the quality of the training provided to staff, which in turn, impacts competence in implementing agreed procedures. ACI’s security chief believes one stone that should not be left unturned is training in identifying potential problems before they have the chance to crystallize.

“We see value in airports and airlines training staff to recognize behaviors,” he said. “If one works in an airport terminal every day, one can recognize what behavior is normal and what is not. Staff should be trained to take action in circumstances where they observe someone behaving abnormally.”

Although the action may be very simple — perhaps just notifying security or police and keeping the person under observation until enforcement officials arrive — even these small steps need to be drilled home.

“By nature, many people do not like confrontation or do not like to get involved in things which are not directly their business,” said Bradbrook. “But that is the message that we need to get across to all airport and airline staff — security is everybody's business.”

Security is also big business these days and a number of ideas, machines and improved training methods are helping to make the disruptive-passenger problem less of an issue.

Identifying unusual behavior patterns
Identifying unusual behavior patterns is certainly one security element that’s proving very effective at the Houston Airport System (HAS), particularly in mitigating ‘minor’ disturbances, according to Frank Haley, interim deputy director for public safety and technology.

Haley recalls an officer correctly identifying a distressed passenger before she became too much of a problem. “It saved a lot of time and hassle for the other passengers,” he claimed. “There have also been plenty of instances of people needing medical assistance.”

Such training is currently offered by a limited number of specialized firms but isn’t overly time-consuming. Around 40 hours training will give staff the basic skills and there are constant reinforcement exercises after that.

Haley reports that officers using the technique feel it is very beneficial, though he stresses the HAS approach is a little bit different from the norm. “We look at it from a customer service point of view and not as another layer in the security system, although of course it fulfils that role as well,” said Haley.

Dealing with disruption at Houston also has a technical side. George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) is testing a breach containment system, deployed using closed circuit television (CCTV).

Passengers suspected of causing a problem can be tracked and their behavior scrutinized using video analytics. For example, if a security checkpoint is breached the program can be launched over the CCTV network and used to track and help contain the individual. IAH is the first gateway in the U.S. to use the software as a commercial application.

“This is about business continuity, because otherwise a breach would cause checkpoints and aircraft operations to shut down,” Haley emphasized. “That causes delays and could mean passengers missing connecting flights. If we use it just once it will probably pay for itself.”

Security initiatives
There are plenty of other security initiatives, but perhaps the most important one in terms of the bigger picture of identifying known offenders is Secure Flight, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) program that is taking some time to get off the ground.

Secure Flight is a passenger screening program still under development and is intended to replace the Computer Assisted Passenger Presceening System (CAPPS) schemes. Essentially it compares passenger information from Passenger Name Records (PNRs) against watch lists maintained by the federal government.

Secure Flight was introduced by the TSA in August 2004 after the agency abandoned plans for CAPPS II, in part due to privacy concerns. TSA expects Secure Flight to begin operational testing at the end of 2008, with full implementation scheduled for 2010.

Currently, airlines are responsible for checking passengers against government watch lists, but Secure Flight will transfer that responsibility to the TSA. This should ensure a higher level of consistency and will help remedy possible misidentifications.

After it receives information for each passenger, the TSA will then determine any matches of information with government watch lists and transmit matching results back to aircraft operators.

It is hoped Secure Flight will be combined with the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) to create a comprehensive detection solution.

While the ‘cures’ for problem passengers are improving, a lot of collaborative work still has to take place. Giovanni Bisignani, IATA's director general and CEO, calls aviation security “an uncoordinated mess,” and it is true that harmonization would help reduce the number of incidents caused by passengers unaware of local laws and processes.

Designs for reduced stress
But there is also a big part to be played by preventative measures, particularly at the sharp end of disruptive occurrences — those passengers who get drunk or irate over a delay or who simply get lost in today’s mega-terminals.

Airport design and new self-service travel options are critical and may provide a huge boon to easing tensions. Fentress Architects, for example, describes Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea as affirming a feeling of warmth and welcome.

“The design finds both overt and subtle ways to make Incheon a memorable gateway to the region and a haven for weary travelers by infusing the airport with the rich heritage of Korean culture,” said Fentress of the award winning gateway.

Reducing stress — and its potential to build up into a volatile airport incident — can start at the passenger’s home. Checking in online and even printing the boarding pass lowers the odds of standing in a lengthy line at the airport. Clear travel information on the airline and/or airport Web site can also help put a traveler at ease.

The next piece of the jigsaw requires other stakeholder involvement, but is no less crucial. Airport access has to be made as straightforward as possible. Congested motorways are a huge source of stress — particularly for business passengers, used to cutting it fine for peak-time flights. Those airports that offer multi-modal connections create a more relaxed ambience even before a passenger steps into the terminal.

What airports can do
Along the same lines, parking should be plentiful and connections to the terminals efficient. These are all cogs in the wheel of a problem-free airport experience.

In the building itself, a number of factors come into the equation. New simplified travel procedures again play their part. Everything from Common Use Self Service (CUSS) kiosks to biometric immigration channels can reduce waiting times and give a passenger confidence.

Clear wayfinding signs, good retail outlets, well-lit gate locations, clean restrooms and even high-street prices all make for a comfortable journey. And the information should keep coming — not only about delays but also warning passengers of the consequences of disruptive behavior.

Perhaps most important of all, service has to be excellent. In a highly competitive world this is often the case anyway, but real customer-oriented service can often pour water on the flames of confrontation.

Given today’s congested schedules, the effects and costs of a disruptive passenger are huge. Trying to prevent such stress from building up, recognizing when prevention might have failed and then implementing the correct solution are all now permanent features of the modern security landscape.

It remains to be seen whether the air transport industry as a whole is ready to engage — and pay for — some serious landscape management.