Mint Explainer: Unruly passengers on flights and how authorities handle them

  • Airlines categorize unruly behavior into three levels, ranging from verbal harassment to life-threatening actions

Anu Sharma
First Published15 Jan 2024
A passenger hit an IndiGo pilot when he was making an announcement regarding a delay in take-off at the Delhi airport. (PTI Photo)(PTI01_15_2024_000029B)
A passenger hit an IndiGo pilot when he was making an announcement regarding a delay in take-off at the Delhi airport. (PTI Photo)(PTI01_15_2024_000029B)(PTI)

The civil aviation industry has been a witness to regular incidents of misconduct by both passengers and airline staff over the past decade. With air travel growing by over 140% since 2013 to more than 150 million air passengers in 2023, these incidents have become increasingly frequent. Misconduct among passengers ranges from minor issues like dissatisfaction with cold food to requests for remaining seated.

A recent incident occurred on Sunday when a passenger assaulted a pilot of an IndiGo flight while he was making an announcement related to flight delay when a large part of the country was engulfed in a thick blanket of fog, causing delays amid low visibility.

Unruly passenger: 2017 incident

The issue of passenger misconduct took centrestage in 2017 following an incident involving Ravindra Gaikwad, a former MP associated with Shiv Sena. Gaikwad , hit a duty manager of Air India with his slipper more than 20 times when the latter requested him to deplane. Gaikwad was carrying a business class ticket and insisted on taking an early morning flight which was an all-economy class aircraft.

This incident prompted the Indian civil aviation regulator to formulate a civil aviation requirement or norm in May 2017 on unruly passengers. 

Recent surge in incidents

There has been a spike in unruly incidents on board since air travel started recovering in late 2022. In a bizarre incident in 2022, a passenger travelling on an IndiGo Chennai-Tiruchirapalli flight “accidentally" opened the emergency exit during the boarding process. 

In 2022, Air India witnessed two incidents whereby, a passenger was reported to have urinated on a co-passenger on a New York-Delhi flight, and another passenger had relieved himself on a vacant seat and blanket of a fellow passenger on a Paris-Delhi flight.

An "unruly passenger" is defined by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) as one who disrespects rules of conduct at an airport, fails to follow instructions of the airport staff or crew, and disturbs order either at the airport or on board. 

Such passengers are placed on the 'no-fly list' which is maintained by the DGCA. Once, a passenger is marked as an unruly passenger by an airline's internal committee, the same is notified to DGCA and shared with other airlines. 

The duration of a flying ban on a passenger depends on the category of misconduct, with a minimum period of three months. When a person, is put on the list, other airlines have the option to ban him from taking flights to/from/within India for a duration in line with the category of the offence.

As per the norms by the regulator, airlines can categorize unruly behaviour of passengers into three categories. Under level one, unruly behaviour includes physical gestures, verbal harassment, unruly inebriation among others. The second level includes physically abusive behaviour such as pushing, kicking, hitting, grabbing or inappropriate touching, or sexual harassment among others. The third level includes life-threatening behaviour such as damage to aircraft operating systems, physical violence such as choking, eye gouging, murderous assault, attempted or actual breach of the flight crew compartment etc.

Handling unruly passengers

Upon identifying an unruly passenger, the pilot-in-command must quickly assess the situation and communicate with the airline’s central control. 

Security agencies, duty manager at the alternate aerodrome and ground staff shall be informed of appropriate action at landing. Upon landing, the airline representative shall lodge the first information report with the concerned security agency at the aerodrome, to whom, the unruly passenger shall be handed over.

Whenever an airline receives a complaint of unruly behaviour from the pilot-in-command, the incident may be referred by the airline to an internal committee. This internal committee shall be constituted by the airline and consists of a retired district and session judge as chairman, a representative from a different scheduled airline as a member, and a representative from a passengers’ association or consumer association or retired officer of consumer dispute redressal forum as a member.

Recent IndiGo incident and government response

The latest incident of 14 January involved a passenger on an IndiGo airline running towards the first officer or the junior pilot who was announcing a flight delay. The junior pilot was part of the new crew who had replaced the earlier set of crew as the latter had completed the maximum flight duty period of 10-13 hours. While there was no aircraft activity due to lack of visibility following fog conditions, the pilot crew had to be changed as per the regulations.

“On January 14, 2024, during the announcement of a flight delay by the first officer of flight 6E2175, a passenger assaulted the first officer. As per protocol, the passenger was declared unruly and handed over to the local law enforcement agencies for further action. The incident is being referred to the independent internal committee for appropriate action and inclusion of the passenger on the 'no-fly list' as laid down in regulatory guidelines. The safety and security of our passengers and crew are of paramount importance, and we maintain a zero-tolerance policy towards any such unacceptable behavior,” an IndiGo spokesperson said.

Civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia addressed the chaos at airports due to fog. He reiterated that Delhi witnessed unprecedented fog on 14 January wherein visibility fluctuated for several hours, and at times, dropped to zero between 5 AM to 9 AM. The authorities, therefore, were compelled to enforce a shutdown of operations for some time even on CAT III runways (CAT III runways cannot handle Zero-Visibility operations).

“The decision was taken keeping passenger safety in mind, which remains the foremost priority for all in the aviation ecosystem. Incidences of unruly behaviour amidst this are unacceptable, and will be dealt with strongly in line with the existing legal provisions. I would like to assure everyone that all stakeholders are working round the clock to minimise the fog-related impact,” Scindia said today.

He has asked Delhi airport to expedite the operationalization of the CAT III-enabled fourth runway. The DGCA will issue a standard operating procedure for airlines on better communication and facilitation of passengers to minimise discomfort given flight cancellations and delays due to adverse weather.


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