There are up to 215 seats on an average Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 flight, meaning that in the case of a disruption both the airline and the airport have to deal with a crowd of unhappy people complaining about the same problem at the same time. Or an acquisitive mob, as crowd theory puts it. When it comes to handling this mob and preventing it from causing damages on ground or (God forbid) on board an aircraft, there are several methods, ranging from ones using behavioral psychology to the more straightforward “let’s teach our staff to fight” approach.

How crowds turn into mobs

Acquisitive mobs occur when a crowd of people is drawn together by a shared interest of a limited recourse. In the cancelled flight occurrence at the airport that would be the shared wish to reach the planned destination as soon as possible.

For a crowd not to break into violence, airports use a variety of physical barriers. This is a common technique, widely used by concert venues or other big event organizers, that helps to divide and direct crowds, so panic and crushes are avoided.

But a more important measure is perhaps the psychological aspect.  Theoretics from Le Bon to Freud pointed out that being within the crowd brings deeply buried emotions and irrational behaviors, the individual might not even know they had. Therefore, airports are constantly „walking on eggshells“ between order and riots.

Yawning as sign of unruliness

To help navigate the complex and little-known minefield of human psychology, the airports in US use “Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques”. However, this approach is heavily criticized, mainly because there is no strong evidence, that it is possible to correctly guess which passengers are dangerous, based on the observation alone.  To take matters further, in 2015 a scandal broke off when the leaked US Transportation Security Administration’s documents revealed the criteria of choosing people for random security checks at the airports include traits such as “exaggerated yawning”, “face pale from recent shaving of beard” and “sweaty palms”.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released figures showing that reports of unruly passenger incidents onboard aircraft increased in 2015.

“Safety in the air begins on the ground, and unruly passenger incidents are best managed in a preventive manner by keeping a passenger displaying unruly behavior on the ground and off the aircraft,” is how IATA’s Guidance on Unruly Passenger Prevention and Management. However, oftentimes it is difficult for the different parties to share and actually take on the responsibility for the problems that arise in airports. Perchance a significant part of the more than 50000 unruly passenger incidents registered in the past ten years could have been prevented prior to boarding.

The hot potato known as responsibility

During a crisis, be it a malfunction, aircraft accident, natural disaster or act of terrorism, both airlines and airports have tasks to carry out. To make crisis management uncomplicated, emergency response plans (ERP) have to be prepared in advance, as they let the damage to be minimized and speed up the restoration to normal.

However, certain huge issues may arise during crisis management. Unsuccessful division of duties needed to solve the crisis might come from both parties having different priorities. Unwillingness or unsuccessful cooperation might come from poor crisis communication or insufficient resources. Whereas denial of blame by both parties signifies complete absence of crisis management.  In case of airport or airlines not taking responsibility the effects of crisis will be even more devastating and reputation of both parties is likely to get hurt due to absence of any actions and/or legal procedures.

“People get frustrated when they face some misbehavior towards them,” says Marius Stonkus, CEO of Skycop, a claim refund company. “People turn angry or unruly they only when they are not offered a solution to the problem they are forced to deal with. So, first of all, even not talking about legal side of obligations, airlines should take care of passengers at due time and lessen as much as possible the inconvenience their clients are experiencing. And later on reimburse them how it’s stated in the law. I believe if passengers knew that in case any problem arises it is going to be solved, people would be gathering at local cafeterias and restaurants and taking their time to relax instead of going to fight against anyone they find in their way on airport premises”. 

Kung fu against passengers?

Some carriers – like Aeroflot’s budget subsidiary Pobeda – have taken a rather interesting approach to dealing with unruly travelers by teaching their staff Sambo – a Russian martial art based on judo. They are not unique in this regard. Hong Kong Express, for example, trains their staff in the art of kung fu.


“Shifting responsibility of dealing with angry customers onto frontline staff is part of a wider problem of how airline staff are treated in general – especially those that work for budget carriers,” writes Geraint Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Industrial Relations and HRM, University of Birmingham.

Teaching airline and airport staff martial arts might be promoted like a possible solution to violent airports in the sky and on ground, but in the end of the day it comes down to bringing the responsibility to the employee-level. But can this help fight (pun intended) a what seems to be a system problem? Pobeda, for instance, has had it its fair share of passengers attacking airline agents in airlines but training staff to fight back will do nothing to stop violent incidents from happening.