Air passengers become more unruly over COVID-19 protocols

Air passengers have become more unruly as airline operators insist on compliance with safety protocols since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, says International Air Transport Association (IATA) in its latest.

According to IATA, as airlines intensify efforts at ensuring that COVID-19 policies are followed and travel becomes inconvenient with new rules in place, air passengers are getting more agitated and resorting to assaults on crew members and verbal abuse.

IATA, a trade association of the world’s airlines, to which Nigerian airlines are also signatories, said in the report that in 2020, the rate of unruly passenger incidents doubled, and that trend has continued in 2021.

In an informal survey of the IATA’s Cabin Operations Safety Technical Group, one member airline reported over 1,000 incidents of non-compliance in a single week.

Another calculated a 55 percent increase in unruly passenger incidents based on the numbers carried. Incidents have even resulted in diversions, including a flight from Paris to Delhi.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had more than 4,600 incident reports between January and early October 2021, of which 72 percent related to a refusal to comply with the federal mandate to wear a mask. Some 849 of these reports have been investigated versus a yearly average of 142 over the last decade.

On the home front, Air Peace, the largest airline in Nigeria also confirmed a rise in cases of unruly passengers since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Nigeria in 2020.

Stanley Olisa, spokesperson for Air Peace said there are times some passengers would refuse to comply with COVID-19 protocols, putting the airline in a difficult situation.

Read also: Air Peace to resume direct flights to Dubai March 1

“We have had cases of passengers refusing to observe the established COVID protocols. We deal with such situations with care and explain the necessity of such compliance. We have well-trained crew who are versed in passenger handling and this helps a lot.

“When passengers become unbearably unruly, we invite the airport security officials to help manage the situation so as not to delay operations. We use this medium to urge the flying public to always comply with laid down rules governing flight operations and we are doing a lot in also sensitising them, as we have noticed that some passengers are not aware of some of the expected practices,” Olisa said.

Kingsley Ezenwa, media and communications manager, Dana, told BusinessDay that although the airline has not had any reason to deboard a passenger over refusal to abide by COVID-19 rules, the airline sometimes has to force passengers to wear their facemasks.

In 2020, shortly after flight resumption after the outbreak of COVID-19, the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) disclosed that some persons violated COVID-19 protocols at the airport.

FAAN had alleged that Abdulaziz Yari, former governor of Zamfara State, and Ahmadu Fintiri, governor of Adamawa, refused to observe health protocols at the Aminu Kano Airport and the Port Harcourt International Airport respectively.

Reacting to this, Hadi Sirika, the minister of aviation, said that the law gives room to prosecute passengers for being unruly at the airport.

The minister said the punishment for unruly behaviour according to the law is a minimum of two months’ imprisonment.

“Fighting or other disorderly conduct on-board of an aircraft or in the terminal building which means in the vicinity of an airport or inside an aircraft and according to E part: unruly behaviour means disobedience to lawful instructions issued by the aircraft commander, which is the captain; or flight crew means any pilot; or flight engineer; cabin crew; cabin attendants, check-in staff; and all security screening staff; or any local staff on lawful duty at the airport.

“So if you refuse their instructions, you will be termed an unruly passenger,” Sirika said.

After the worst year in history for unruly airline passengers, Delta’s CEO is asking the Department of Justice to help create a national “no-fly” list for anyone convicted of federal offences related to an on-board disruption.

CEO Ed Bastian wrote to U.S. attorney- general, Merrick Garland on Thursday asking for his support in banning unruly passengers from all commercial carriers.

Bastian believes banning unruly passengers from all commercial flights will send a strong signal to the flying public that not following crew member instructions comes with severe consequences.

“This action will help prevent future incidents and serve as a strong symbol of the consequences of not complying with crew member instructions on commercial aircraft,” he wrote.

Unruly passenger incidents onboard Delta planes have increased nearly 100 percent since 2019, according to Bastian.

To date, the airline has placed almost 2,000 people on Delta’s internal no-fly list for refusing to wear a mask and has submitted around 1,000 banned names to the transportation security administration to pursue civil penalties.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, is painfully aware of what airline crewmembers continue to face.

In addition to the “extremely violent” and most “outrageous and egregious” cases that have made headlines during the pandemic, there has been a steady stream of aggression.

“We also have a lot of incidents that are happening more regularly that are violent maybe not directly toward someone, but in actions and words: punching backs of seats, spitting, throwing trash at people, yelling obscenities, using racial, gender and homophobic slurs,” Nelson told CNN Travel.

Tim Colehan, IATA’s assistant director, government and industry affairs, noted that a complex set of new health rules means some increase in non-compliance was inevitable. But this can’t explain it entirely.

He pointed out that at the time of booking, passengers agree to the terms and conditions. There is messaging at check-in, at the gate, and announcements are usually made on the aircraft.

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