ASRS Directline

 Issue Number 9 : March 1997

Passenger-Related Safety Hazards

by Betty Hicks and Rowena Morrison

Reports in the media and popular films frequently leave the impression that the main safety threats to commercial air carrier operations involve bombs, terrorist hijackings, and hazardous cargo. However, reports received by Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) belie some of these notions. Pilot and flight attendant reports to the ASRS indicate that passengers themselves are an unexpected source of many inflight safety problems, ranging from the merely annoying, to those that pose serious interference with crew duties and a potential risk to aircraft structural integrity.

ASRS data is not the only indicator of a serious and growing problem with passenger inflight incidents. A recent issue of a major air carrier's employee publication noted an almost 200% increase between 1994 and 1995 in reports filed with the company by flight attendants describing interference from passengers. [ Endnote 1.] The interference included assaulting, threatening, or intimidating crew members performing their inflight duties. During this same period, the number of physical assaults experienced by flight attendants at this carrier increased threefold.

Passenger-related incidents form only a tiny fraction of ASRS database holdings. A recent review of 73 database reports referencing inflight security problems revealed that passengers - drunken, obstreperous, or dangerously uninformed - constituted 23 percent of the reports submitted, equaling the number of incidents involving hazardous materials carried in the cargo hold. Passengers carrying guns, with and without the necessity to be armed, accounted for another 12 percent of these 73 reports. In general, the ASRS passenger-induced safety hazards fell into the following categories:

Alcohol or drug-related violence;

Uncooperative or unstable behavior;

Carriage of hazardous materials and devices on board.

The following discussion presents some thought-provoking - and typical - examples drawn from ASRS data of adverse passenger effects on flight safety. It describes how these incidents were handled, and summarizes reporters' conclusions about how future occurrences might be prevented, or their impact lessened.

The Case of the Swinging GolferGolfer

A golfer en route to an overseas tournament could be expected to swing - but at passengers and flight crew? As so frequently occurs in cases of obstreperous passengers, this golfer had been too well served, as the British phrase it:

It was later determined that the passenger had apparently taken a doctor-prescribed sleeping pill or relaxant along with the alcohol. Golfball bouncing off person's headAt the initial disturbance, the Captain dispatched the relief pilot to check on the situation. The passenger temporarily calmed down, but the cease-fire was not long-lived. In response to the next disturbance, the Captain sent the Second Officer (a retired Captain), to speak to the golfer. While the Second Officer momentarily had his attention diverted, the golfer hit him in the chin with an uppercut. The pugilist "was subdued and restrained with airline-issue handcuffs, from which he released himself (or broke) in about 30 minutes." The relief pilot was recalled to oversee the behavior of the out-of-bounds golfer, "...who was on good behavior for the remainder of the flight." At the intermediate destination, the golfer was removed from the airplane and sent back to the origination point with two escorts. He was arrested there and permitted one phone call - which he used to call the airline to make reservations to his original overseas destination!

The unlucky Captain of this flight had two recommendations to ASRS and to his airline, based upon this passenger's antics: (1) have a designated "bouncer" assigned to flights, and in no case send the PIC back to cope with the problem; and (2) provide training in use of the airline's new-design handcuffs.

A Commotion at Cruise

The pilot reported to ASRS that this female passenger "was OK for the first two hours of the flight..." (#132061) But she became violent at cruise, grabbing a Flight Attendant by the hair and shaking her, and bruising and scratching other passengers. A doctor on board managed to calm the passenger. "The person who boarded her put us all at risk!" protested the reporting pilot, expressing what may be excessive optimism that a Passenger Service Representative could diagnose the future misbehavior of a passenger who appeared calm during boarding.

In similar ASRS reports, crew members suggested better screening of passengers: "I suggest airport police be given the authority to test suspect passengers for intoxication to determine if they are fit for boarding." "We feel that passengers should be closely observed during the ticketing and boarding process, and not boarded if their behavior is questionable."

"Oh, Were We Cleared to Two Five Zero?"

"While we began our pushback, a deranged passenger tried to force open the main cabin door." The relationship between this incident and the late initiation of a descent would appear to fall in the non-sequitur category. Not according to this ASRS report:

Since the flight was still at cruise, well above the altitude at which sterile cockpit procedures would have been initiated, this may have seemed a reasonable time to review the pushback incident. However, assignment of cockpit duties to the co-pilot would have been appropriate before the Captain took himself "out of the loop" for the discussion with the Flight Service Manager.

The Pax with the Aft Attitude

The commuter passenger who figures in the next incident was not hauled off for incarceration, nor was he charged with physically interfering with a crew member in performance of his or her duties. But for sheer obstinance, he was a winner.

The Flight Attendant asked the man to move for weight and balance purposes. He refused. She explained again that his moving was necessary for weight and balance compliance. He responded that he was a pilot, and punctuating his statement with four-letter words, announced that he knew better than to accept the necessity to move. Moreover, he challenged, "If the pilots want me to move, they can come back here and make me." The Flight Attendant then asked for help from the flight deck, but both pilots were too busy with flight duties to leave the cockpit. The Captain later reported to ASRS:

The crew probably took the best action - no action - during this incident. Any further prodding of the passenger by the crew might have resulted in an altercation and a more serious disruption of the flight. Since the aircraft was apparently still flyable with the passenger in the off-limits seat, continuing to the destination was the least provocative course of action.

Skunk"What's That Smell?"

Not all the inflight passenger problems reported to ASRS were the result of actions by intoxicated or belligerent individuals. There were several instances in which well-behaved but uninformed passengers introduced hazardous carry-on baggage into the cabin. One such incident, reported by a First Officer, involved the discovery by the cabin crew of a malodorous surprise in an overhead bin:

The cabin crew carried the offending box to a rear lavatory and covered it with a damp blanket to stifle the fumes, while air vents and the lavatory drain were opened to increase airflow. The crew then locked the lavatory and increased the airflow through the cabin to dissipate the odor. The passenger who owned the chain saw was described as "very cooperative, maybe even embarrassed." The final surprise was the passenger's account of how the chain saw had been brought on board: Prior to this passenger's initial borading, "Security told him he could carry it on. Since then he had not had to clear security screening, so nothing more was said to him about it."

In a similar incident, cabin crew investigating an unusual odor discovered a small leaking camp stove concealed in a knap sack enclosed in an overhead bin. Confusion reigned while the crew tried to sort out the appropriate procedure to follow. The airplane flight manual was ambiguous, so they contacted dispatch, which in turn contacted the Chief Pilot and Fleet Manager for clarification. The Chief Pilot and Fleet Manager disagreed on interpretation of the flight manual, so the hapless crew finally complied with the most conservative procedure - they diverted for landing to remove the leaking camp stove from the aircraft.

Of Arms and a 'Leg'

"Bobby"Flight crews become upset when they are the last to know that they have authorized armed security on board. "Before boarding," recalled one PIC, "I was told that a [government] VIP was traveling. After the flight was completed, I discovered that the VIP was accompanied by two security personnel. It was then that we realized that we had two armed individuals on the flight, and we had no notification to the flight attendants or to the PIC."

This violation of the airline's operations manual caused the Captain to invite the Operations Department to investigate. They found a trail of deteriorating communications.

The Flight Attendant solicitously asked the two passengers in Row 4 if their legs were OK. They were.

It is a policy at some air carriers that when an armed passenger is admitted to the aircraft, the Passenger Service Representative comes to the cockpit to inform the flight crew of the location of the passenger and that person's need for carrying the weapon during the flight. When there is more than one armed passenger on board, the Captain also makes sure that the armed individuals are introduced to each other, so that neither will be surprised by the sight of another weapon-carrying passenger. The use of direct, clear communication - privately delivered to the appropriate parties - generally gets the information across.

Other Passenger Problems

The balance of reports regarding other passenger problems were mostly unique incidents. They included gate agents who permitted passenger boarding before flight attendants were on the airplane, an apparently alcohol-impaired passenger blocking an emergency exit, and a brazen passenger retrieving his own bags from a commuter baggage compartment.

Intoxicated passengers, disorderly behavior, undeclared hazardous materials in carry-on baggage - these and other problems identified in ASRS data pose potential threats to the safe operation of aircraft flights. To safely manage the outcome of these incidents, pilots need to use lots of diplomacy, apply Crew Resource Management skills, and operate strictly according to company procedures. One Captain summed it up nicely: "In order to guarantee compliance with the numerous, complex aviation regulations, pilots need to be well informed, cautiously skeptical, and they need to document their actions."

1."American Will Not Tolerate Abuse of its Employees," American Airlines Flagship News, Vol. 52, No. 19, September 30, 1996, p. 1.

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