Belligerent passengers: NCAA, airlines blow hot air

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By Ime Akpan

The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the local carriers have threatened to take any action, including criminal prosecution, against any passenger who assaults their workers, but it’s  a pronouncement full of sound and fury

It is becoming an unfortunate reality that passenger assault and abuse on airline employees have increased significantly. The vast majority involves relatively simple acts of defiance, but sometimes it escalates to truly obnoxious behaviour and even brutal violence against airline staff performing their official duties.

Unruly passenger incidents include violence against crew and other passengers, harassment, verbal abuse, smoking, failure to follow safety instructions and other forms of riotous behavior.

Although such acts are committed by a tiny minority of passengers, they can create inconvenience, threaten the safety and security of other passengers and crew, and lead to significant operational disruption and costs for airlines.

Statistics collected by IATA, together with data from individual civil aviation authorities and evidence from member airlines, confirms that unruly passenger incidents on board aircraft in flight have become a significant problem.

IATA collected 49,084 reports from airlines concerning unruly passengers between 2007 and 2015.

In 2015, the rate was one incident for every 1,205 flights (2014: 1 incident for every 1,282 flights)

The airlines’ body said the majority of reports are Level 1 incidents which are verbal in nature and can usually be dealt with to a successful conclusion by crew using de-escalation training; 11 per cent of reports relate to level 2 incidents which involve physical aggression to others or damage to the aircraft.  Intoxication from alcohol or drugs was identified in 23 per cent of reported cases.

IATA’s statistics do not cover all airlines around the world, so are likely to significantly underestimate the true extent of the problem.

Commenting on the unruly passenger behaviour, the chairman/chief executive officer of Air Peace, Mr. Allen Onyema, whose staff were attacked by some passengers in Abuja, Lagos, Calabar and other parts of the country, said some of such behavior could be linked to alcoholism.

“I once approached a man who was shouting at the top of his voice and abusing me for a delayed flight and as he dipped his hands in his pocket to fetch a handkerchief to wipe his face, a bottle of Chelsea alcohol drink fell off too. And those nearby told me he had been drinking for several hours and they attributed his violent conduct to intoxication,” he said.

“These kinds of persons in airport vicinity are very dangerous. There should be a law banning alcohol sales and its use inside our airports,” he advised.

“No businessman can operate successfully under a condition where his employees have to be molested anyhow without adequate protection as we now see at Nigerian airports.

“These are some other people’s children, husbands, brothers, and uncles, and they are above all, human beings. It should stop before it gets to a situation where we begin to think of self-defence,” he added.

Air Peace’s trouble with the passenger in question and others followed the withdrawal of some of its aircraft from service due to two separate incidents.

The airline said the winglet of one of its aircraft, which was being towed within the very limited space at the ramp of the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos to position for departure, had a partial contact with the stabiliser of another of its aircraft.

“We subsequently declared the two aircraft unserviceable in line with our high safety standards.

“We were, therefore, compelled to adjust our schedules to close the gaps created by the two aircraft, which were scheduled to do 14 flights. While we were trying to salvage the situation, some unruly passengers took the law into their own hands.

“Some passengers, who were to fly with us from Abuja to Benin, however, went violent. They attacked our staff in Abuja and almost killed our duty manager. It took the intervention of Air Force personnel, who were reportedly called in by the airport authorities, to rescue our duty manager from the mob. But that did not prevent the passengers from destroying our facilities. The menacing passengers also prevented others from boarding their own flights, thereby complicating the situation,” narrated the airline.

Arik Air had its share of passengers’ rage earlier in the year when it failed to operate its Lagos-New York JFK, Lagos-Johannesburg, and Lagos-Accra scheduled flights.

“Arik Air pursued all possible options to source fuel for the international flights on January 4, 2017, but when our customer service manager at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, approached the passengers to explain the situation to them, one of the passengers chased and attacked him.

“This was followed by a mob of passengers who brutally beat, kicked and chased the Arik Air staff throughout the terminal building. The staff was later rushed to the hospital where he was treated for injuries sustained during the attack,” said the airline’s spokesman, Mr. Adebanji Ola.

On May 26, 2014, a police orderly attached to the former managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Mr. Dan Abia manhandled a staff of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) Mr. Idris Bashir and Arik Air employee, Mr. Joseph Akayuk when Arik Air’s Port Harcourt-Abuja flight arrived at the Abuja Airport.

“The gun-wielding security detail attached to the NDDC boss, Police Corporal California with service number 382079 descended on Mr. Joseph Nkayuk, an Arik staff at the Abuja Airport.

Joseph’s offence was that on arrival of Flight W3 258 from Port Harcourt, he had the temerity to deny not only the (security) detail but all the passengers who wanted to pick up their checked-in bags at the tarmac, insisting that they should proceed to the arrival hall to claim them (bags.)

There is no one internationally agreed convention or guidance on dealing with unruly passengers. Passenger behaviour is subject to the law of the country the plane is registered in. However, international conventions set out the parameters within which national law is applied.

In respect of authority to deal with passengers and jurisdiction to prosecute unruly passengers, the Tokyo Convention 1963 (as amended by the Montreal Protocol 2014) makes clear, among other things that:

The aircraft’s captain is in charge of the safety of the flight, and has the authority to decide how to deal with an unruly passenger, once the passenger is on board a flight

In addition to the state of registration of the aircraft, the state of the operator (if different) and the state of landing may exercise jurisdiction over offences and acts committed on board

It is possible for a state to claim damages, in accordance with national law, from an unruly passenger who is disembarked.

Whereas the Tokyo Convention 1963 as amended outlines authority and jurisdiction, the Montreal Convention 1971 sets out what constitutes an offence. Offences include an act of violence against a person on board and causing damage to the aircraft.

Arik condemned the resort to verbal or physical violence in any form by a passenger describing it as “unacceptable.”

The airline said it would deploy all measures necessary against any passenger who takes the law into their hands.

“Arik Air will also pursue legal action and engage local and foreign security agencies including private security firms to investigate, identify and prosecute to the full extent of the law all of those passengers in Nigeria and overseas, involved in the attacks against our personnel and property,” said the airline.

NCAA also warned passengers who make it a habit of assaulting airline workers to desist from such act or face criminal prosecution.

The spokesman for NCAA, Mr. Sam Adurogboye said the warning became necessary following a plethora of reports from airports detailing brutal attacks on airline official.

“These attacks are embarrassing and discourteous to such affected officials. The Authority undoubtedly recognises that the operating airlines must at all times uphold the conditions of carriage and contract on each passenger’s ticket,” he said.

Adurogboye said passengers are not expected to take laws into their hands if and when there are operational hiccups which are capable of truncating air services

Conversely, he said when passengers are aggrieved, they are expected to lodge complaints with the consumer protection directorate or any other competent person designated by the Authority about an alleged infringement.

“It is on record that the consumer protection directorate has handled and resolved several cases from aggrieved passengers to their satisfaction.

“Therefore, the Authority expects aggrieved passengers to recourse to the platform provided by NCAA to file their complaints and seek redress or compensation as the case may be.

“Subsequently, any passenger found carrying out attacks on airline officials will face criminal prosecution,” said Adurogboye.

Do the NCAA and airlines have the guts to walk the talk when in some situations passengers do not get their luggage weeks after arriving in their destinations and the airline(s) is/are economical with the truth?  Or how will NCAA apply the big stick when, sometimes, it takes the agency the end of forever to address passengers’ complaints?

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