At the weekend terrified passengers joined cabin crew in overpowering a passenger on a flight from Frankfurt to Belgrade. They took action after he apparently threatened to open the door mid-flight. The phenomena of ‘passenger power’ is not new, and in times of heightened terrorist threat it’s probably more likely than ever to occur. The question is: are we ready for the implications of a rise in the number Good Samaritans?

Earlier this year three young American tourists and a Briton overpowered a gunman on a packed French passenger train. The worlds media rightly lauded them, and celebrated their actions. They were seen as heroes and were rewarded accordingly. Within four days Frances President Francois Hollande presented them with Legion d'Honneur adding “Your heroism should be an example and a source of inspiration for everyone.."

Such praise clearly positions the actions of those particular passengers as heroic and worthy of approval. The virtuosity of their actions however seems to have put any analysis of the implications of their physical restraint beyond scrutiny. The fact is they got physical. Various reports at the time cited the use of a ‘rugby tackle’ to take the suspect down, the grabbing of both his arms to restrain his movements, the application of a neck lock, and the placing of him face down on the floor, with his hands being tied up behind his back. It’s not that these actions are likely to be found unreasonable in a court of law. It’s that the celebration of the outcome has eclipsed any careful examination of the potential risks associated with such actions.

Let’s start by turning back the clock and considering the case of 19 year old Jonathan Burton. He was a passenger on an internal flight from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City on Southwest Airlines flight. Something went wrong with the young man. It wasn’t a terrorist attack, and speculation has included the interaction of drugs along with the fear of flying. Either way his erratic and aggressive behaviour brought about an intervention by passengers. This was a passenger led intervention that ultimately resulted in his death.

It was initially believed Burton had died of a heart attack. But the post mortem results revealed that Burton had effectively been strangled and died of asphyxiation. His body had multiple bruises and contusions on the chest, legs, arms and face, the result of being struck with blunt objects, fists and feet. At least eight passengers were involved in the restraint. None of whom ultimately faced criminal charges.

In the French train incident it seems the passengers intervention was seen and felt by many commentators to be more effective than any official one set in place by the transport company. Many media reports have stated, rightly or wrongly, that train staff on board the high speed train barricading themselves in their staffroom and locked the door, leaving passengers to fend for themselves. Interestingly one of the passengers involved in the Southwest airlines restraint stated at the time "(A flight attendant) said there's no policy, there's no procedure. We were counting on the passengers to get involved here," Afterwards an Airline spokeswoman said, "We had a lot of children on that particular flight ad unaccompanied minors so we certainly needed the passenger's help."                                            

The net result is that passengers may be more likely to frame any ‘disruptive passenger behaviour’ as being hostile in intent and less likely to trust that there will be an effective organisational response. They may also be more prepared to have a go and less inclined to consider the rights or wrongs of what they do seeing as they are likely to be focused purely on putting an end to the persons violence and subsequent resistance.

Once cannot help but think that this could be the recipe for disaster. It begs the question; do you as a responsible organisation have a protocol in place to manage the risks arising from the involvement of the public and the actions of often well intentioned good Samaritans?

Securicare have worked with airlines extensively over the past 20 years, and been at the leading edge of developing disruptive passenger management solutions. Click here to find out more about our ‘Preventing & Managing Disruptive Passenger Behaviour’ course, and our widely used ‘Disruptive Passenger Restraint System’

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