The arrest last week of Ralph Lauren’s niece, Jennifer, for pushing a Delta Air Lines crew member is the latest example of spiraling inflight misbehavior that industry body International Air Transport Association (IATA) says poses a growing threat to safety.
The 41-year-old was convicted on Wednesday of drunkenness and threatening, abusive or insulting behavior aboard an aircraft that had forced her Delta flight bound for New York from Barcelona to divert to Shannon, Ireland, Dublin police said.
The number of incidents involving unruly passengers has jumped 12-fold in four years, according to the IATA. The group says that has left airlines wading through myriad local laws to bring prosecutions for offenses ranging from verbal tirades to punch-ups and rape threats, while forcing crews to act as proxy law officers.
“We don’t think they should be placed in a position where they’re a police force in the sky,” said Tim Colehan, IATA’s assistant director for external affairs, who is leading calls for resolution of jurisdiction that mean national authorities “often simply allow the passenger to walk away.”
IATA has drafted changes to rules on passenger behavior for an International Civil Aviation Organization meeting in Montreal in March that would make it easier to punish offenders under national laws.
The Delta incident involved a Boeing 767-300ER wide-body aircraft carrying 216 customers, according to the Atlanta-based company.
The plane followed established procedure in diverting to Shannon in western Ireland “to have law enforcement address an unruly passenger,” spokesman Morgan Durrant said, declining to comment further.
Jennifer Lauren, who runs Jenny Lauren Jewelry in New York, pleaded guilty at an Irish court hearing, according to Shannon-based Carmody & Co, the firm of her solicitor Sharon Curley. She was fined 2,000 euros (US$2,700).
While airlines can bill passengers for the expense of diversions and the resulting disruption, in practice they often view recovery of damages as too time-consuming and costly. The diversion caused by Lauren’s outburst cost the carrier more than US$43,000, according to media reports. The airline declined to comment on damages.
IATA figures show that incidents of unruliness surged from about 500 in 2007 to surpass 6,000 in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.
As technological advances make planes ever-safer, with just 17 fatal accidents and 224 deaths last year, the rising tide of on-board conflicts reflects not only the ubiquity of flying and a more systematic collection of data, but also real behavioral changes, according to IATA.
On June 3 last year, a group of about 100 high-school students due to travel from New York to Atlanta were thrown off an AirTran flight after the pilot and crew lost patience with their failure to sit down and turn off mobile phones.
Dubai-based Emirates, the biggest international airline, said on Jan. 2 last year that a passenger on a Singapore to Brisbane flight was restrained and met by Australian police on arrival. Local reports said the man, who was arrested and charged, had repeatedly sought to smoke.
So-called sky marshals, introduced by some countries after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US, tend not to intercede in minor disturbances because such incidents “can be used as a shield for terrorist action,” Colehan said.