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Sticking hundreds of people in a metal tube for hours on end can lead to some odd situations. People get testy when they’re crammed into tiny seats — witness the case of the woman who became so agitated after being cut off from champagne aboard her Swiss flight that the captain actually diverted the airplane to kick her out. That’s not so uncommon: disruptive passengers cause diversions several times a year all over the world.

But what happens after the flight takes off again, and everything goes back to normal? Who pays for the cost of having to divert for a sick or disruptive passenger? We’ve reached out to some industry experts to understand.

Reasons for a Diversion

Diversions happen for a couple of reasons including as simple as bad weather or a mechanical failure, to as absurd as a lack of bathrooms and even a case of a cheating spouse. A sick passenger can lead to a rerouting if the captain decides that their life is in danger unless immediate medical attention on the ground is provided. And if a disruptive passenger isn’t subdued and the captain thinks other travelers and crew are in danger, she can make the call to land and remove the unruly person or persons.  

The Cost

Diversions costs can vary. In 2016 a Hawaiian Airlines flight was turned around and sent back to its departure airport due to a drunk passenger.  The flight was operated by an A330, which holds nearly 300 passengers, and it ended up costing Hawaiian about $150,000 — that dollar figure includes fuel cost, maintenance, ground crew, a new flight crew and re-accommodating passengers on other flights, and almost $47,000 in meal vouchers. The rowdy woman who needed to be booted off the Swiss flight cost the airline in excess of $10,000. In 2015 a Norwegian flight had to turn around over the Atlantic, and it reportedly cost the budget airline 100,000 euros.

It comes down to a couple of factors like aircraft type, operator and where the flight diverts to, says Bob Mann, an airline analyst at R.W. Mann & Company. A regional jet costs about $40 a minute to fly, while a twin-aisle aircraft could run as much as $200 a minute. Landing and passenger fees plus any service costs also need to be accounted for when landing at a different airport.

And if the diversion is lengthy, says Mann, it may lead to the crew “timing out” — meaning a relief crew will need to replace the current one, because airline crews are allowed to work only up to a maximum amount of hours set by law.

All this can mean most diversions run in the five figure range, but it can get higher in certain cases. Mann cited the time when an Air France A380 experienced engine failure and had to divert to Goose Bay in Newfoundland — it likely could have cost the airline six figures, and possibly even into the million dollar range when accounting for ferrying in a new crew and aircraft, said Mann. 

When a Swiss 777 had to divert to Iqaluit Airport in remote northern Canada after engine trouble, the company had to ship in a replacement engine, which was estimated to cost over $27 million before the labor and replacement costs.

Who Pays?

So, who pays for all the extra costs incurred when an aircraft needs to make an unexpected stop? In the case of a medical emergency, the airline typically shoulders the cost of the diversion, and industry officials say that it’s just a cost of doing business. Not every medical emergency on board turns into an emergency landing, though — often there is a doctor on board, and sometimes that means the sick person can be treated on the flight and no diversion is needed.   

With an unruly passengers, the situation is a bit different. Only until recently have airlines begun to pass on the costs of diversions if a passenger forces the plane to divert, says Mann. In the case of the Hawaiian flight mentioned earlier, the carrier actually went to court and the disorderly passenger was forced to pay $98,000 to the airline to cover the some of the costs of the turnaround. As for the Swiss woman with an unquenchable thirst for champagne and a very short temper, she was fined 5,000 euros by authorities.

In the US, passengers can face up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines for interfering with flight crew members. The Federal Aviation Administration is the authority that issues these fines in the US, although it doesn’t appear that anyone has been fined this much for a plane diversion.


Featured image by STR/AFP/Getty Images.


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