What To Do When Faced With An Unruly Passenger On An Airplane


One of the top stories in the news last night was about a plane bound for Africa from Washington DC. When one passenger reclined his seat, the passenger behind that person assaulted him. A confrontation occurred that resulted in the plane returning to Washington under fighter escort. Apparently, the attacker felt as if his personal space had been invaded. While I feel that each passenger is entitled to recline their seat if they please, I might reconsider if asked nicely. I generally feel that I can recline my seat, and if the person behind me needs more space, they can too.

My Story

Among the worst flight experiences I have ever had was returning home from a funeral. I brought on my carry on suitcase and was able to find room in the overhead compartment beside my seat. To fit my suitcase in, I had to move over another small bag to the side of the bin. When I did so, the owner of the bag loudly objected to me moving his bag. I told him that both bags fit just fine in the bin. Sadly, this jerk turned out to be my seatmate as well. He continued to complain to me and then picked up his cell phone, complaining loudly about me to the person on the other end of the line. Having just attended a memorial for my grandmother, I wasn’t particularly in the mode for anything more confrontational than the in-flight magazine. As another boarding passenger passed by, she dropped accidentally dropped a bottle of water on the jerk. The jerk assumed that the bottle of water came from me and actually threw it at me! Ultimately, he realized his mistake, and without apologizing, backed off for the rest of the flight.

What I Should Have Done

After the jerk got agitated and wouldn’t let go of the fact that I repositioned his bag, I should have gotten up from my seat and informed a flight attendant. I could have explained that this person did  not seem stable, and that I was not comfortable sitting next to him. At the moment he threw something, I should have immediately sought a flight attendant. By being the first one to alert the crew, I would have established myself as the witness to a disruptive passenger. Had another passenger alerted the crew to our altercation, they would have had no way of determining “who started it” and they would probably remove us both from the plane. Considering that we were still on the ground, I am very confident that the flight crew would have done one or all of the following things: They would have removed the passenger from his seat and spoken to him in private, probably on the jet-way. They would have warned him against being disruptive. If the jerk treated the crew the way he treated me, he would not have been allowed to re-board the plane. At the very least, they would have re-seated him away from me. Had this occurred in the air, the jerk may have even been escorted from the aircraft upon arrival.

What To Do When This Happens To You

First, never escalate a situation. This may work on the street or in a bar, but in an aircraft you will end up being equally at fault for whatever consequences. You may be able to prove you weren’t at fault months later in Federal court, providing you have paid for a good lawyer, but I wouldn’t call that a desirable outcome. Next, alert the crew at the first sign of trouble. They are the law in the sky. In fact, not complying with a crewmember’s instructions is actually a Federal offense.

When faced with a jerk, the key is to remain calm. First ask the person nicely to cease their behavior. They probably won’t, but at least you are doing the most reasonable thing. Do not get out of your seat to confront him. If the person does not change their behavior after a verbal request, only then should you exit your seat to speak with a flight attendant. If you have the choice, go to the rear of the plane, rather than the front. Needless to say, there are rules against gathering in the front of the plane, and this would be the last place that a flight attendant wants to deal with a problem. Explain the problem clearly and concisely. Simply tell the crew that a passenger is being disruptive despite your polite request. Let them know that you do not feel comfortable being seated near that person, and let the crew do their job.


Airline crews are now incredibly hostile to disruptive passengers. How else can you explain a figher escort afte r a minor altercation triggered by a reclining seat. There are two lessons to take from this fact. First, do not ever be a disruptive passenger. Next, when encountering a disruptive passenger, you can utilize the crew  in order to resolve the problem and deal with jerk.

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