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It sounds like a drinking-game question. But considering the ever-wackier behavior of some airline passengers, it’s become a serious concern for both airlines and the people they fly. A few well-publicized incidents stand out, like the ranting presidential supporter recently banished from Delta for harassing a seat-mate or the severely inebriated Brits 86’d forever from low-cost carrier Jet2. And while Delta didn’t ban Ann Coulter for her recent Delta meltdown, we have a feeling that some celebrity will be banned from an airline sooner or later.

In fact, airlines do have the legal right to ban you at will, says Thomas Demetrio, the Chicago attorney whose clients include Dr. David Dao, now famous for getting dragged off a United Airlines flight in April. “If a person’s conduct is such where an airline feels they’d be a threat to future flights and passengers, why not?” says Demetrio, a partner at Chicago’s Corboy & Demetrio. “Restaurants do it.”

To find out what that would take, I reached out to 15 carriers — from Air Canada to Interjet to Singapore Airlines — but not one of them would talk on the record. So I decided to go straight to the source: those long, dull contracts of carriage that govern every flight you take on every airline. The contract spells out the carrier’s obligations and rights — and yours.

“I know exactly one guy who’s actually read them,” Demetrio says. “To be a model citizen, everyone should. As a practical matter, it’s not going to happen.”

With that in mind, I did the reading so you don’t have to. Here are the common baselines for booting bad-news passengers.

  • British Airways’ contract of carriage contains some of the most colorful and thorough examples — everything from presenting a counterfeit ticket to making “a hoax bomb or security threat.”
  • At Qatar Airways, it’s impaired behavior that tops the list: “Your conduct, age or mental or physical state, including your impairment from alcohol or drugs” can get you kicked off a flight.
  • Delta’s wide-ranging contract of carriage warns the airline may refuse to transport you if you are barefoot, have a malodorous condition — ie., you reek — or if you’re unable to sit in a seat with the seatbelt fastened. Delta can also refuse to fly you if the airline deems your conduct “disorderly, abusive, or violent” or your behavior “may be hazardous to himself/herself, the crew, or other passengers.”
  • At United, there’s no mention of what it takes to be forcibly removed from a flight, but the usual list of offenses in its contract of carriage is augmented by a shout-out to phone junkies. Passengers “unwilling to follow UA’s policy that prohibits voice calls after the aircraft doors have closed, while taxiing in preparation for takeoff or while airborne” are subject to refusal or removal.
  • Budget carrier Norwegian is even more direct in its rules. If your behavior endangers the crew, passengers or equipment; if you smoke, drink or take drugs in-flight; or if you misbehave in a myriad of other ways, it “may take whatever precautions considered necessary to prevent the continuation of such behavior. This includes the use of force. You may be put off the aircraft, refused onward carriage from any airport and may be prosecuted for criminal acts committed on board.” Gulp.
Image courtesy of ranplett via Getty Images.
Know the rules and this won’t this happen to you. Image courtesy of ranplett via Getty Images.

The sad thing is such occurrences are no longer an exception. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reports that from 2007 to 2015, there were more than 49,000 reported cases of unruly passenger incidents on board aircraft in flight, including incidents of violence against crew and other passengers, harassment and failure to follow safety instructions.

“Not only does unruly behavior threaten passenger safety, it also disrupts operational procedures and burdens airlines with additional costs,” IATA says on its site. “But due to loopholes in existing laws, such offenses often remain unpunished.” Drunkenness, and the “resulting disruptive behavior” seems to be the biggest catalyst of these incidents, according to London-based attorney Tony Payne of international firm DLA Piper, who wrote a white paper on the topic.

One thing’s for sure: Tensions keep escalating, and an us-vs.-them mentality seems to have taken hold with some passengers — and crew.

“It all had its beginning with 9/11, and the sheer fear that it could happen again,” Demetrio, the attorney, says. “Vigilance in recent times has turned into acrimony. And there’s an unhappiness with a lot of the employees of the airlines having to put up with passengers, who can be demanding and insistent. Ann Coulter went ballistic over what? Moving down three seats? It’s an industry susceptible to digruntledness, both on the side of employees and passengers.”

“If there’s a truly problem passenger,” Demetrio says, “they should be identified and caught before they even get on a plane. My mantra is that employees deserve the same respect and dignity that we passengers think we should get from them.”

Featured image courtesy of Chalabala via Getty Images.

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