Let’s face it, there’s an awful lot of trust involved in taking an airline flight.

Locked in a confined space with as many as 500 strangers and a handful of staff to keep everyone in line requires a lot of faith in humanity. The fact that airport security has (hopefully) prevented anyone from bringing a weapon onboard is some consolation, but doesn’t exactly ensure peace and harmony—especially when transgressors can’t be thrown off midflight, and calling for help takes a diverted landing to accomplish.

Yet millions of us all over the world fly every year, and many of us feel comfortable enough doing it to actually fall asleep surrounded by those same complete strangers. Some, mostly in business and first class, even do it in pyjamas.

So what happens if someone decides to cause trouble?

By the Numbers: In-Air Fights in 2015

In September 2016, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association for the world’s airlines, announced that in 2015 there were 10,854 incidents of unruly passengers reported by airlines the world over.

The most common of these involved antisocial behaviour, or passengers refusing to do what they were instructed to do by airline staff. However, 11 percent involved physical aggression, and 40 percent of airlines reported having had to divert a flight within the previous 12 months due to a disruptive or unruly passenger.

In the United States, airline cabin crews are trained to cope with every eventuality, from health issues to accidents, criminal acts to drunken or uncooperative passengers. It is their job to keep people calm and everyone safe, and if a problem starts, they’re the ones who must de-escalate it as quickly as possible.

But airline executives know just how undesirable a disturbance can be in a locked-in environment, which is why airlines can take much deeper extremes to handle such ne’er-do-wells—though they tend not to talk too much about it publicly, both to avoid unnecessarily worrying passengers and also to keep their cards up their sleeves should a passenger decide to cause trouble.

What Happens When You Pick a Fight on an Airplane?

It is known that cabin crews on some airlines have access to certain security implements, including plastic handcuffs. That said, any physical confrontation would most certainly be an absolute last resort, as injuries to staff, other passengers and even the aircraft could be hard to avoid.

Many airlines—especially U.S. carriers—have armed sky/air marshals on board certain flights whose job is to prevent major incidents like hijackings or terrorism. (In Canada, the Canadian Air Carrier Protection/Protective Program, or CACPP, uses specially trained, armed, undercover RCMP officers.) However, an air marshal is unlikely to reveal themselves and become involved in a less serious conflict. But, as further proof it’s in no one’s best interest that a violent confrontation occurs on board any aircraft, there’ve been numerous reports of passengers coming to the aid of cabin crews when things have turned nasty.

As for the troublesome passenger, once subdued, their future’s not particularly rosy. The least they can expect is to be banned from that airline—likely forever—and it’s not unheard of for particular troublemakers to end up being unable to fly on practically any airline anywhere, more or less for the rest of their lives.

Not a good career move—or vacation situation—for most people.

Any sort of disruption that causes a diversion or a flight delay costs the airline thousands of dollars, and the troublemaker will certainly be required to compensate the airline for every dollar plus any additional fees and costs. (Bet you didn’t know that.)

Finally, there’s the legal side. Anything that involves the police waiting to escort you off a plane in handcuffs is never good, and the punishment for anything from smoking in the washroom to committing a violent act against a crewmember or passenger can be extremely serious. And yes, it can certainly involve imprisonment and a criminal record.

So, the next time you’re asked to close your window shade, put your seat in the upright position or stop throwing pretzel bits at the head of the person in front of you, it’s in your best interest to do as you’re told.


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