Alcohol the biggest cause of unruly airline passenger behaviour

A First Air crew was waiting at the airport in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, when a man came into their office, demanding to be taken to Yellowknife.

There was no flight to Yellowknife just then, the crew told him. They were heading to Iqaluit instead. But if he wished to purchase a ticket, they said, he would be welcome to.

The man was drunk, said former flight attendant Amanda Karttunen. He was upset by that response.

“He started being really disruptive,” said Karttunen. He was shouting profanities and yelling, “Get me out of here!” It started making other passengers nervous, in an airport filled with children, the elderly and much of the community, she said.

The crew called the police and waited for them to arrive.

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Karttunen and the Iqaluit flight’s captain decided to go outside for a quick cigarette before they got ready for their flight. The disruptive man followed the pair outside and quickly engaged the captain – getting right up in his face – or as close as he could, given the difference in their size.

“The captain was about a foot taller than him,” she said.

“He looks up at the captain and he goes, ‘You’re awfully big.’

“And the captain goes, ‘Yup, I’ve been told.’

“So he goes, ‘You’re a big asshole.’

“And the captain goes, ‘Well, that may be so, but now you’re definitely not flying.’”

The police arrived a little later, just as the flight to Iqaluit was leaving. Karttunen isn’t sure what happened to the man, as she was already on board the plane, without him.

Drunk and disruptive

Intoxicated passengers can cause real problems for airline crews, airport staff and fellow passengers. Some incidents are merely uncomfortable, such as this one at the Cape Dorset airport.

Others can involve real danger to staff or the aircraft, such as recently, when one drunken passenger on a transatlantic Air Canada flight was so abusive, he had to be tied to his seat and forced the aircraft to divert to a different airport.

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Through Access to Information legislation, Global News obtained reports relating to a total of 784 disruptive passenger incidents, submitted by airlines to Transport Canada.

While disruptive passenger incidents are uncommon, amounting to a small fraction of one per cent of passengers according to Air Canada, intoxication was cited as a contributing factor in 39 per cent of these cases, making it by far the biggest contributor to disorderly conduct on flights and in airports.

Sgt. Kevin Greenhalgh, of the Peel Police’s Pearson Airport Division, thinks that number is even higher – he estimates that about 75 per cent of the disruptive passenger cases he sees are related to alcohol.

“A lot of times what will happen is people will buy drinks on the flight, but the flight attendants are unaware that the person might have had too much before they even got on the plane, or it’s illegal to do this, but they’ll be consuming their own alcohol on the plane. So they might order a Coke, but then they’re pouring rum or something into it, without the flight attendants being aware of it,” he said.

He gets one or two requests every week from airlines asking him to come and deal with an unruly passenger, which involves either meeting the plane at the gate or dealing with a disgruntled customer at the airport. Calls are more frequent during the winter tropical vacation season, as resort-goers return to the Canadian climate and their work lives.

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“They’ve been away for a week, they’ve been down south enjoying themselves, drinking, and basically it’s their last kick at the can before they have to go back to work, or before their vacation ends,” he said.


Individuals who get drunk and disorderly on a flight have to answer for their behaviour one way or another.

The milder cases might get a stern lecture from a flight attendant, flight captain or even a police officer like Greenhalgh. But for those people who continue to disobey the flight crew’s instructions, the consequences get more serious.

Interfering with the performance of a crew member’s duties is an offence under the Aeronautics Act. An indictment conviction could mean a fine of up to $100,000 or a maximum five years jail time, and a summary conviction could mean a fine of up to $25,000 or up to 18 months jail time.

In some cases, such as with the man who forced an Air Canada plane to divert to Edmonton, an individual might also be charged with criminal offences, such as sexual assault and mischief.

Not only could someone face charges, they could also find themselves stripped of their flying privileges. Air Canada, for example, occasionally bans troublesome passengers from booking tickets with their airline.

“Individuals whose conduct has jeopardized safety and the security of the passengers, employees or aircraft will not be accepted for transportation on Air Canada until they no longer constitute a threat,” Air Canada wrote in an emailed statement. “A passenger may be banned for a prolonged period until such time as they demonstrate to our satisfaction that they pose no risk to our passengers and our operations.”

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They could however book with a different airline. According to Air Canada, privacy regulations prevent airlines from sharing their banned passenger lists with each other.

Cut off

One way to reduce the number of disorderly passengers might be to restrict alcohol sales on board flights.

“I don’t have an issue with them serving alcohol. It’s not up to me to make that determination. But it may be in the future, depending on the length of flight, how many people are allowed to have. Maybe they should control how much people are having,” said Greenhalgh. Flight attendants, like all alcohol servers, are already not permitted to serve visibly intoxicated individuals, he said. And generally, they wouldn’t want to.

“No one wants to deal with someone causing problems in a pressurized steel tube at 25,000 feet. Right?”

Still, say both Greenhalgh and former flight attendant Amanda Karttunen, disruptive passenger incidents are relatively rare. “People are generally fairly well-behaved on board,” said Karttunen. And if something does happen, she said, “Flight attendants are definitely equipped to deal with disruptive passengers.”

Tell us your story: Have you ever seen a disruptive passenger on board your flight? What do you think – should airlines ban alcohol sales? Let us know on our Facebook page.  

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