The Consequences of Being an Unruly Plane Passenger

Without criminal charges, is there any punishment?

ByRheana Murray
September 04, 2014, 2:28 PM

— -- Lately, it seems like airlines passengers can have disruptive temper tantrums on flights -- in one case, successfully demanding the plane land -- and walk away without even a slap on the wrist.

Three U.S. flights were recently forced to make emergency landings because passengers got into flights over reclining seats. In one of those cases, a passenger was arrested. The unruly passengers in the other two flights were simply let off the plane. One of them was escorted to the rental car area.

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"Early on, I learned they just kick them off and put them on a different plane. They probably give them an upgrade, too," professional flight attendant Heather Poole told ABC News.

She remembers one time watching an unruly passenger be escorted off the plane in handcuffs upon landing. After cleaning the plane, she rushed to a nearby bar to meet colleagues, where that same passenger was already drinking.

It's also a major inconvenience for other passengers. Joanna Thatcher, who was aboard a Delta flight on Monday that diverted to Jacksonville, said she was shocked that one person's outburst was enough to land the plane.

"It's ridiculous that one passenger inconvenienced 100-something other passengers and cost the airline thousands of dollars, and she gets to walk away without being fined," Thatcher said.

At least one airline says there are other punishments for passengers who act out in the air.

American Airlines spokesperson Josh Freed said the airline has its own no-fly list -- separate from the government's -- that unruly passengers could potentially be added to.

"When we handle cases of disruptive passengers, one option is denying future travel," Freed said. He stressed that that rarely happens.

"This doesn't come up very often," he said. "I know it's been in the news very often, but we fly a ton of people. This is a non-issue most of the time."

Freed declined to say whether Edmund Alexandre, who got into a fight over a reclining seat on an American Airlines flight last week, is on the list. That plane diverted, and Alexandre was charged with interfering with a flight crew.

Delta Airlines and United Airlines, two other airlines involved in recent flight diversions, did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.

"Diverting a plane is a huge deal. It costs airlines a lot of money," Poole said.

Of course, there are exceptions. Last year, an Iceland Airlines crew and passengers aboard duct-taped a drunk man to his seat after he began screaming, hitting and spitting on other passengers.

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