How to Deal with Unruly Passengers on Airplanes

The hostility of unruly passengers on planes in 2021 is unprecedented. Sure, disruptive passengers have made the news in years past, but the Federal Aviation Administration states the number of “unruly passenger” violations as of May 25 has already exceeded the totals from 2019 and 2020 — combined. In fact, there are over 2,500 reports of these violations so far this year (as of July). The majority of those reports, about 1,900, have to do with passengers not complying with the face-covering mandate. Unfortunately, things don’t look like they’re about to change any time soon.

While airlines are taking steps to mitigate external factors, like alcohol on flights, you also have the power to make a life-altering difference when these incidents arise. So, what can you do to keep yourself and others safe?

Implement your situational awareness to recognize what leads up to a physical attack.

Keep your eyes and ears open and scan for red flags when you head to your seat, when the plane is about to take off and anytime you get up to use the restroom. A red flag can look like the guy next to you who’s on his fifth gin and tonic and starts to grumble under his breath or get nasty with a flight attendant. It can sound like the woman who’s complaining loudly to her seat-mate about the mask mandate or some other rule that she doesn’t feel like following. A red flag can also feel a certain way in your body. Your intuition may send you a signal in the form of a gut feeling or message that says something is off about a particular person. Do not ignore these messages. They are gifts for you to help you stay safe.

If you are the target of an unruly passenger, set your boundaries FIRMLY and POWERFULLY.

If someone is raising their voice at you or laying their hands on you, don’t waste any time letting them know that isn’t acceptable! Simple phrases, like “Don’t speak to me that way,” or “Back OFF” or “Get your hands OFF of me!” have a lot of power. Sometimes, all you have to do is speak up in a powerful tone and someone may back off. 

If your boundaries are violated on a plane, communicating that loudly calls attention to your situation. If communicating those boundaries doesn’t stop the unruly passenger, the next step is to get others involved. You can watch my video about setting powerful boundaries to learn more.

De-escalate the situation first, if possible.

Before things get physical, try to de-escalate the situation. You can try to redirect the passenger’s attention by asking them questions and engaging in a civil conversation. On the ground, this would give the subject of harassment the opportunity to get away. On a plane, the best you can do is divert the unruly passenger’s attention and make them feel heard. Doing so may calm that person down.

Here are some basic guidelines for de-escalation:

Stay calm. It’s easy to get heated along with the unruly passenger which will only escalate an already hotheaded situation. Do your best to breathe and talk calmly to yourself and out loud.

Listen. Listen to the language used and what is really at the issue of the outburst.

Reflect. Reflect what the irate passenger is saying back to them (kind of like a therapist).

Eye contact and posture. Keep eye contact with the person and keep your physiology non-threatening. Hands up in front of you at shoulder height is a universal sign of de-escalation.

Nod. Act like you’re understanding their complaint.

Empathize: Tell them you are sorry they are feeling so upset or use other words to try and bring their intensity down a few notches, perhaps to buy enough time while calling for back up.

Alcohol and/or mental illness is often a contributing factor with unruly passengers. Unfortunately, this means logic won’t always change their mind. Keep that in mind while trying any of these de-escalation tactics.

When de-escalation doesn’t work and if there aren’t any other actions for you to take, film the incident with your phone so there’s a physical record of what happened.

Ask for help from fellow passengers or flight attendants if you need it.

If someone is violating your boundaries or you see someone on a plane being disruptive, don’t be shy to ask for help. Call a flight attendant and/or ask other passengers around you for help. You don’t have to do this alone.

Flight attendants have the opportunity to take self-defense classes to prepare themselves to handle these incidents. (See my segment on Inside Edition with Jim Moret on How to Take Down an Unruly Passenger on an Airplane.) Since these classes aren’t mandatory, not all flight attendants will be able to handle every situation. The more prepared you are, the more you can help. Use your intuition to determine if your assistance is warranted before stepping in. A true badass knows not only how to help, but when. The purpose of intervention is to prevent unruly passengers from becoming dangerous, so always keep that in mind and keep your cool when stepping in!

If you are ready to learn the basics of self defense for women, head to my She Warrior Self Defense online training course and get started.