What happens if you disrupt a flight over Canadian airspace?

Passengers who cause a problem face a $100,000 maximum fine or five years in jail. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Passengers who cause a problem face a $100,000 maximum fine or five years in jail. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

For reasons unknown, flying brings out the inner beast in some people. Whether it’s being in a cramped space for hours without any respite or sharing a confined space with a bunch of strangers or the consumption of too much alcohol — there are more stories in the media lately about passengers disrupting flights.

The disruption could involve many different things apart from aggressive behaviour. A few years ago, a flight over Canadian airspace was forced to make an unscheduled landing because passengers were allegedly smoking on the flight. These kinds of incidents cost airlines tens of thousands of dollars in unexpected expenses.

The problem is flying out of control

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), incidents involving passengers are escalating but loopholes in the law are cited as the reason many of these offenses are unpunished. The IATA is trying to remedy that problem by liaising with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to improve inflight regulations and what happens to passengers who break the rules.

As of now, passengers who cause a problem to the extent that the aircraft must be diverted or has to land, face a $100,000 maximum fine or five years in jail. That regulation extends to all airspace under the Aeronautics Act.

In a document that discusses unruly passengers, Transport Canada makes it clear that any interference with crew members will not be tolerated on board an aircraft or anytime during travel. Crew members of Canadian companies operating aircraft undergo training on how to diffuse potential problematic situations.

The way to turn a polite Canadian into Mr. or Mrs. Hyde

A long-time running joke is, “How do you turn an otherwise mild-mannered, polite Canadian into a monster? Put him on an airplane.”  There are times when that’s true. For instance, a recent flight from Montreal to Cuba had to return to Trudeau International airport escorted by a fighter jet because of an unruly customer who was allegedly making threats. The disruptive passenger was taken into custody when the plane landed.

The passenger, a Quebec native, faces charges including assault, uttering threats and committing an act of violence on a person likely to endanger the safety of an aircraft. The man was also charged with violating a court order that he must not drink alcohol or have alcohol in his possession. The Crown objected to the 39-year-old’s release and he is being held pending a bail hearing. The disturbance is just one to plague airlines over the last few months.

The flight may not be the only thing fully loaded

Alcohol is a big factor behind air rage. Boarding any aircraft when drunk is against the law but sometimes it happens. Other reasons people can become short-fused: long lines, flight delays, overbooking, lack of communication and the non-smoking policy on all aircraft. These issues can leave passengers feeling stressed out.

Airline personnel are getting more experienced at spotting passengers who could become disruptive or unruly. The idea has been bandied about of putting up signs at airports to warn passengers that airlines have zero tolerance for bad behaviour. Many airlines are now spelling out the rules on backs of boarding passes.

Drunk or drugged up passengers can pose a real danger for other passengers and airline crew. While some incidents are just plain uncomfortable, some can become potentially disastrous if they interfere with the safe operation of the aircraft.

A mile-high menace

Certain conduct and behaviour is considered illegal in Canada. If any prohibitive conduct or behaviour occurs before the flight, the carrier can refuse to transport the passenger. If it occurs during flight, the aircraft may make an unscheduled landing and the unruly passenger may be arrested, charged, and/or prosecuted.
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