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Powers to prevent disruptive passengers on flights


Disruptive passengers on international flights – what powers does a flight crew and other passengers have?

Increasingly, the in-flight behaviour of passengers has been a major concern to airlines, unions, and governments around the world. The heightened tension on flights from devastating events such as September 11 in the US, is only exacerbated by smaller nearly events such as passengers trying to open cabin doors mid-flight.

In 1963, an international convention called the Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft was concluded in Tokyo. It was ratified on 4 December 1969 and now has been ratified by around 186 countries around the world, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation. The international convention is commonly called the Tokyo Convention 1963.

The Tokyo Convention

The Tokyo Convention 1963 applies to international flights only, and only between countries that have ratified the Tokyo Convention 1963.

Under Article 1 of the Tokyo Convention 1963, flight crew have a wide range of powers to restrain and detain passengers who are believed to:

  • have committed or about to commit an offence against penal law; or
  • acts which, whether or not they are offences, may or do jeopardise the safety of the aircraft or of persons or property therein or which jeopardise good order and discipline on board an aircraft

In addition to this, the aircraft commander (chief pilot) can order members of a flight crew, or even fellow passengers, to carry out reasonable measures on board. This could include restraining a passenger, if he or she believes that a passenger has committed or will commit a criminal offence. The lead pilot may use these powers to:

  • protect the safety of the aircraft, or of persons or property on board;
  • maintain good order and discipline on board; or
  • allow the aircraft commander to hand over the disruptive passenger or passengers to law enforcement officials

In accordance with Article 6(1) of the Tokyo Convention 1963.

However, these powers are not restricted to the aircraft commander of the flight. Any crew member, or even a passenger, may also take reasonable preventative measures without such authorisation. Passengers or crew may take action if they have reasonable grounds to believe that it is immediately necessary to protect the safety of the aircraft or of persons within - as per Article 6(2).

Provided the crew on board the aircraft have complied with the Articles of the Tokyo Convention 1963 in their management of a disruptive passenger(s), they are entitled to a complete defence from a claim brought by the disruptive passenger(s) in civil, criminal and/or administrative proceedings brought as a result of any injuries or treatment they have sustained - as per Article 10 of the Tokyo Convention.

Fundamentally, the Tokyo Convention 1963 (and the recently ratified but not fully in force, Protocol to Amend the Tokyo Convention 2014), provide a powerful tool to protect passengers, flight crew and the aircraft itself.

(Please note that this article is not intended as legal advice, and is for educational purposes only. Please contact the writer for additional information).

Written by Shine Lawyers on May 11, 2016. Last modified: May 13, 2019.

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