By Marcia Randall, Editor of Cnn Travel
Editor’s Note — Mar. 14, 2016 — This article was written as part of a series in conjunction with the August issue of CNNMoney.
(CNN) — Flying is already uncomfortable for many Americans. The number of flights delayed or canceled in recent years has increased dramatically. So it is no surprise that some people would resist boarding the plane if they feel they have a right to hold it hostage.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration should be applauded for taking proactive steps to protect people traveling on commercial planes, for taking this unruly passenger problem seriously and starting to address it with appropriate and productive action.
Passengers caused the whole problem, and it’s high time airlines made it easier for authorities to charge the unruly passenger who ruins the travel experience for all of the other passengers.
For years, airlines have failed to raise an alarm about this dangerous trend. They even defended earlier incidents in which people have put flight attendants and passengers in danger.
That changed last month, when airlines announced they were voluntarily increasing the number of on-board staff who are required to monitor passenger behavior. The airlines are now required to establish escalation systems for passengers and crew in the event of agitation that makes it difficult for the crew to de-escalate the situation or prevents flight attendants from performing their duties.
Those steps are important. However, there’s a long way to go. Because the law does not require airlines to have on-board staff to monitor unruly passengers, they have ignored, or not even recognized, the increasing risk this type of incident poses to everyone on board.
Recently, CNNMoney reported on a flight from Houston to New York and the interplay of an emotional support dog and a passenger who had other emotional support animals on board. The dog, which had been trained by a service dog program, was over its owner’s head and making a high-pitched wail. In the middle of the flight, the passenger’s small dog began to wail, too.
What happened next was fascinating. The first reaction of the gate agent was not to eject the passenger from the plane, but to take the terrified, frightened dog off the plane as a safety precaution. Another gate agent then offered the dog to the emotional support passenger, only to see the emotional support passenger reject it, claiming his own animal was underfed and too sick to fly. For safety reasons, the crew still de-loaded the emotional support passenger.
The Delta Air Lines report on disruptive and abusive passengers highlights the department’s acknowledgment that “unruly and abusive behaviors are a common problem and serious safety concern.” While the agency’s report does not note the psychological condition that brings about such behavior, it notes, “Crews are often forced to choose between accommodating disruptive passengers and keeping the entire flight safe and secure.”
“Airlines should have the capacity to rely on crew de-escalation to mitigate dangerous situations,” the report also says. This means that flight attendants are trained to de-escalate difficult situations with abusive and unruly passengers and people who have emotional support animals. According to Delta’s report, the airline implemented a “dialtone notification system” to inform crew members and passengers if an animal is on board.
De-escalation has to start before the moment of danger arises. Unfortunately, only 17% of passengers who give verbal confirmation that they are in compliance with the aircraft cabin and safety rules check their phones before boarding, according to the Associated Press. Clearly, many passengers need to learn that boarding a plane is about relaxation and spending quality time with loved ones.
Making airports safe for passengers by enforcing regulation — such as automatic pet vaccinations for emotional support animals — makes sense. To make it harder for unruly passengers to sabotage the travel experience, the FAA should require airlines to provide on-board staff to monitor unruly passengers and animal owners before takeoff.
Additional staff should focus on:
Vigilance in the early stages of the flight to catch troublemakers.
Training supervisors and front-line employees on how to recognize that they are dealing with a hazardous situation.
Promoting what is now the practice of having staff in first class ready to spot and fix strange behaviors.
Shifting the burden of enforcement from airlines and passengers to hotel and airport staff and regulators.
But implementing such measures can only work if airline and regulatory authorities and industry advocates, both have the conviction and support to make this reality.