With the continuing relaxation of Australia’s international and state borders, and the seeming governmental shift from widespread lockdowns, expectations are high that Australian air passenger numbers will start an upward trajectory in 2022 on a path back to pre-pandemic levels.
The Australian aviation industry has closely watched the experience overseas as borders have opened through 2021. One of the focal points for concern is the recorded spike in incidents of unruly and disruptive passengers. These incidents can range from a failure to comply with crew directions, verbal abuse, through to serious physical assaults involving cabin crew or other passengers. While there has been a steady increase in the rate of such incidents over a decade or more, the pandemic has accelerated that trend. Enforcement of COVID-related requirements such as mandatory mask wearing in many jurisdictions is a common feature.
Examples of such behaviour in various retail settings in Australia in the last two years have received significant media attention, often linked to mask and vaccination requirements. The aviation industry has not been immune to that problem, with incidents recorded at airports and inflight. One high profile occurrence involved an intoxicated passenger striking a cabin crew member in the face during a domestic flight.
The concern was such that, shortly prior to Christmas and the commencement of Australia’s peak holiday season, Australia’s major airlines and airports joined with the Australian Federal Police and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to launch a public awareness campaign targeting unruly passenger behaviour. The campaign coincided with the introduction of more stringent enforcement measures. In Australia unruly passengers are traditionally subject to civil and criminal action. Criminal offences exist at both state and Commonwealth level. Under the new rules, increased fines of up to AU$11,000 can now be issued, while the more serious offences remain subject to potential terms of imprisonment. Those penalties are in addition to any civil damages claims that may arise, such as where the passenger’s actions have caused a flight to be diverted. Often those claims can reach into the AU$10,000’s or more.
How effective these measures are in acting as a deterrent and assisting Australia to buck the trend seen overseas remains to be seen. Challenges exist in terms of possible litigation by the offending passengers themselves relating to, for example, their removal from the aircraft or allegations of discrimination. Complexities also arise in the context of international flights given that Australia, while a signatory to the Tokyo Convention 1963 regarding offences onboard aircraft, has not yet ratified the Montreal Protocol 2014 designed to strengthen the powers of states to prosecute unruly passengers.
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