Sitting next to an unruly airline passenger? Here’s what to do

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By Christopher Elliott

It happened to Jason Loomis on a flight from Los Angeles to Boston. A passenger sitting in the row ahead of him became visibly upset and started shouting.

Loomis, an information security officer from El Segundo, Calif., tried to calm him by striking up a conversation. It didn’t work.

“He bolted out of his seat and said, ‘I’m going to take down the plane,'” he remembers.

While situations like that are rare — the FAA reports only about two unruly passenger incidents per 10,000 flights — several high-profile incidents have brought the issue back into the spotlight. 

One of them was Loomis’ flight to Boston. The irate passenger, Francisco Severo Torres, attempted to open an emergency door and then tried to stab a flight attendant with a broken metal spoon.

Loomis was one of several passengers who tackled Torres and subdued him. But Loomis says it’s always best to approach a situation with empathy and kindness. 

“If that doesn’t work and the threat becomes physical, a more direct form of containment might be required,” says Loomis, who works for a business software company.

What if it happens to you?

With the busy summer travel season fast approaching, passengers might be wondering: What if it’s me sitting next to an unruly passenger?

Misbehaving passengers come in all shapes and sizes. They range from a hyperactive toddler using the tray table for an extended drum solo to a deranged passenger brandishing weaponized silverware. So what do you do if you’re seated next to an intoxicated passenger, a chatterbox, someone who invades your personal space, or God forbid, someone who wants to take down the plane? 

With almost every unruly passenger case, you’re better off asking for help, says Mahmood Khan, a hospitality and tourism professor at Virginia Tech

“It is better to seek help from the airline crew since they can provide other seats or find some solution,” he says. One exception: If it’s your own toddler acting up in the seat next to you. (That problem is yours to resolve, fellow parents.)

What to do about a drunk passenger sitting next to you

Getting intoxicated on a plane is a lot easier than you think. “Between the lowered cabin pressure, lower oxygen levels and drier air, just a few drinks can make anyone feel loopy,” says Dan Gellert, chief operating officer of the travel site Skiplagged. If you find yourself beside a drunk person who is being disruptive, start with a polite request to stop the offending behavior, he says. Most people respond positively to a kind request. 

And what if that doesn’t work? Try finding a flight attendant out of earshot of the drunken passenger and explain the situation. Usually, the crewmembers will stop serving the problem passenger alcohol and move you to an empty seat if one is available.

What to do about an argumentative passenger sitting next to you

Passengers sometimes talk a lot when they get nervous, and flying makes a lot of people nervous. What they say doesn’t always make sense. I’ve had seatmates who tried to convert me to their religion, offer me dating advice and ask me on a date (once in the same conversation). I don’t think drugs or alcohol were involved, but now that I think of it, maybe they were.

“If someone is being argumentative, try to de-escalate by calmly saying, ‘I hear you” and try to work it out,” says Beverly Randolph, director of The Protocol School of Indianapolis. “Use your best judgment.”

Randolph says if the situation escalates, it may be best to ask a crewmember to intervene. The most common mistake passengers make is reacting angrily to a fellow passenger’s rage. Kindness is the most powerful tool when it comes to resolving a confrontation. And ignoring the foul-tempered traveler could also work. Just put on an eye mask, earplugs and go to sleep. 

What to do about a passenger who invades your space

Airline seats seem to be getting smaller by the day. So what do you do when someone takes over the armrest between your seat or leans into your personal space?

“Stay calm,” says Jodi RR Smith, an etiquette expert with Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting

She recommends blaming the seats rather than the person.

“Say to the passenger, ‘These seats are so terribly small! Here, let me lean this way so that you can buckle your seatbelt, and then we can get this armrest down,” she advises. Smith also recommends a deflective approach for invading jackets, hair, or feet. Something like, “Excuse me, I just have a thing about toes — and your toes on my armrest is really freaking me out.”

What to do if someone threatens you or someone else on a plane

In the unlikely event you sit next to someone who wants to bring down the plane, you’ll need to follow Loomis’ playbook, say experts.

“The single most important thing for people to do when dealing with an unruly passenger is to use de-escalation techniques,” explains security expert Michael Corwin. 

What are the best de-escalation techniques? Getting someone to speak more. Physical activity is more difficult when someone is talking, so it reduces the likelihood that they’ll attack. It also allows a person to express themself in a more controlled way. These techniques also work with unruly children.

“For some people, they just want to be heard in some fashion, so let them know you are listening to them by paraphrasing back what the person says to you,” says Corwin.

Ask a crewmember for help as soon as you can. Physical force should be your last resort. (Related: These airline passengers should get banned permanently.)

Will this be the summer of unruly passengers?

The bigger question is: Are incidents like the one Loomis experienced a sign of things to come? Maybe.

During the pandemic, the FAA adopted a “zero tolerance” policy, with fines of up to $37,000 per violation. These incidents decreased from a record high of 1,099 in 2021 to 831 last year. The threat is far from over, though. “Normal” is just a few hundred incidents; in 2003, the number even dipped below 100 to a record low of 91. (Here’s how to get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket.)

“Unless airplanes start hiring more security personnel, there will be more inflight incidents this summer,” predicts Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist based in Beverly Hills, Calif. “This is because, according to the laws of entropy, chaos begets more chaos.”

We had our own epidemic of in-flight violence in the last two years. American air travelers have lost their manners on a plane, and it may take a while to find them.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in São Paulo.

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