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A Delta Air Lines flight's unruly passenger shows how we apply frontier justice in the skies

We're relying on a Wild West-inspired social contract: If you misbehave on the airplane, a deputized posse of complete strangers will take you down.

There are few places on Earth that crowdsource law enforcement services from regular folks. Vigilantism is celebrated in films and video games, but it's criminalized in real life. If Batman were an actual person, he would be public enemy No. 1, not a hero with free access to the police commissioner's office.

Sure, they tell us there are secret federal air marshals on board, but we don’t know who they are. They could be stuck behind the snack cart.

The very reason police use of force is so controversial is that we bestow upon law enforcement officers the unique privilege to use that physical force to arrest or protect others. Police officers can lay their hands on people when regular folks can't. When you're high above Earth, however, frontier justice isn't just allowed but often encouraged.

In a space supposedly free of force equalizers like guns and knives, brute force and strength in numbers are the law. Vigilante justice on a plane isn't a great thing, but it's the only thing.

That was demonstrated Friday night when an unruly Delta passenger was subdued by others on board. In cellphone video of the incident, the captain can be heard calling for what backup he has at his disposal: "This is the captain speaking. We'd like all strong males to the front of the aircraft to handle a problem passenger."

Unfortunately, scenarios like this could soon get more common amid a spike in noncompliant passengers. It's a problem aviation authorities, airline companies and public safety officials need to be prepared for. The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday that it would impose stiff penalties to clamp down on bad behavior. The agency said it could impose fines of up to $15,500 on those who don't follow the rules about wearing masks, as significant numbers of fliers refuse to use them as required by law. But that might only up the outrage level.

Practically speaking, in the air, there really is no law. There are legal consequences for disruptive passengers, but that's only after a plane safely lands. The problem with violent passengers is that they raise the terrifying possibility that planes won't safely land.

During the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a group of passengers famously banded together to try to stop a plane in the hands of Al Qaeda, bringing it down in a field in Pennsylvania instead of on its intended target, the U.S. Capitol. In the years after that, it was understood that passengers might again have to work together against terrorists and hijackers — a noble sacrifice for the greater good. Now the concern appears to have shifted: How do we deal with the emotionally disturbed who have breakdowns midflight?

Sure, they tell us there are secret federal air marshals on board, but we don't know who they are. They could be stuck behind the snack cart. The reality is that only a tiny percentage of flights have them.

Federal law regulates domestic and international flights, as do some international treaties, such as the Tokyo Convention. Article 6 gives aircraft commanders considerable discretion in dealing with disruptive passengers. Captains have the authority to restrain a passenger if they have reasonable grounds to believe a passenger jeopardizes safety, "good order and discipline."

Captains can order crew members to assist, as well. The captain may request and authorize, but can't require, passengers' help in restraining unruly passengers. The Tokyo Convention doesn't even require the captain to give the orders. It permits any crew member or passenger to take reasonable preventive measures without authorization if there are grounds to believe force is necessary.

The Tokyo Convention puts a lot of faith in passengers. Maybe that's because the treaty was concluded in 1963, when people were still wearing fedoras and pencil skirts on planes. The drafters couldn't have imagined shirtless passengers trying to open exit doors midflight. They never anticipated that a passenger would try to board with an emotional support peacock.

The Tokyo Convention applies only to international flights. In the U.S., the Aviation and Transportation Security Act provides immunity to passengers acting under reasonable beliefs to stop acts of criminal violence. In 2000, a passenger attempting to break into the cockpit during a Southwest Airlines flight was actually killed by the other passengers who restrained him. It was ruled a homicide, but federal law enforcement declined to prosecute.

This arrangement might be a logical and necessary one, but the notion of a volunteer security force — assembled quickly when needed, with no vetting — raises serious concerns. We're worried about our police training in use-of-force tactics. What about some guy who has no training or qualifications to use force at all, other than he happens to be right there in Aisle 10?

Essentially, we're all relying on a Wild West-inspired social contract unique to the sky: If you misbehave on the airplane, a deputized posse of complete strangers will take you down. That can work when it has to, but there's a reason the justice of the frontier went the way of the covered wagon. Aviation and law enforcement officials have to confront this unwelcome reality as passenger behavior increasingly joins bad weather and mechanical failures as a danger to those who take to the skies.