When airlines violate their duty of care and fail to protect the safety and welfare of passengers on a flight, they can be held liable for the injuries that result. However, there are limitations and many airline’s contracts of carriage protect them from lawsuits stemming from the actions of other passengers. Problems in the air are common and between 2007 and 2015 there were nearly 50,000 instances of unruly behavior on board aircraft.
Inaction on the Part of a Flight Crew
Flight crews including pilots and attendants are required to protect the safety and welfare of passengers. Like bus companies, they must adhere to their airline’s contract of carriage which in most cases requires them to remove unruly passengers from a flight and to make reasonable accommodations to protect other passengers from drunken, lewd, or violent behaviors. Failure to protect other passengers can be considered negligence depending on the circumstances. A flight attendant who continued serving an already visibly inebriated passenger who then proceeds to physically assault or harass other passengers is an example.
Pursuing Claims Against Other Passengers & Airlines
If an individual urinates on, harasses, or otherwise assaults a passenger, that passenger may pursue civil claims against the individual for physical injuries, property damage, and emotional distress. Similarly, if the airline acted negligently, these claims can be brought against the airline. However, it’s an uphill battle and the contract of carriage for most airlines shields them from civil liability in all but a handful of instances where their negligence and inaction can be shown to have contributed to the injury a passenger sustains.
The Future of Air Travel
There are numerous protections that consumers may have in the future to protect them from unruly passengers on flights. These include the potential ratification of the Montreal Protocol which still requires 22 states to ratify it before it will be a truly effective deterrent to bad behavior on flights. Under the terms of the Montreal Protocol, legal jurisdiction over unruly behavior would be extended to the destination country of a flight as well as the country where the aircraft is registered. This means that unruly passengers traveling on international flights could be apprehended by law enforcement upon landing and would not be allowed to walk away scot-free from their actions.