A global treaty developed to improve the ability of nations
to prosecute unruly behavior by passengers on international flights took effect
on Jan. 1. The U.S., however, is not a signatory.
The treaty, known as Montreal Protocol 2014, or MP14, was
able to enter into force after Nigeria, in late November, became the required
22nd country to ratify it.
The treaty’s most notable provision expands the way
jurisdictional authority is defined for international flights: It widens law
enforcement jurisdiction to include the country where the flight is scheduled
Under the 1963 Tokyo Convention, for which the U.S. is among
186 ratifying nations, jurisdiction over passenger offenses is held by the
nation where the aircraft is registered. But that definition creates scenarios
in which unruly passengers cannot be arrested, since the country in which they
disembark has no legal authority in the matter.
IATA, which helped champion MP14 to its passage by the
International Civil Aviation Organization, says that this loophole is the
reason that prosecution doesn’t go forward in approximately 60% of
“The treaty is in force,” IATA director general Alexandre de
Juniac said following Nigeria’s ratification. “But the job is not done. We
encourage more [nation] states to ratify MP14 so that unruly passengers can be
prosecuted according to uniform global guidelines.”
The lack of U.S. support for MP14 is longstanding. Besides
not having ratified the treaty, the U.S. was not among the 46 countries that
signed onto the protocol in 2014.
The most recent data put forward by IATA shows that reported
unruly-passenger incidents on its member airlines increased
substantially between 2012 and 2015 before dropping in 2017 to levels slightly
higher than in 2013.
In 2017, 8,731 unruly-passenger incidents were reported,
equivalent to one for every 1,053 flights. Unruly-passenger incidents include
violence against crew and other passengers, harassment, verbal abuse, smoking
and failure to follow safety instructions. In 2017, 86% of reports were what
IATA considers Level 1 incidents, which are typically verbal in nature. Ten
percent of reports were Level 2 incidents involving damage to the aircraft or
physical aggression. The remaining 4% were serious incidents, such as
attempting to force entry to the cockpit.
The FAA’s data, on unruly-passenger cases on flights
operating within the U.S., shows that reports have generally declined over the
past 25 years. Since 1995, the five years with the most reports occurred
between 2000 and 2004, with 2004 seeing the highest figure, at 310. The year
with the fewest incidents since 1995 was 2017, when only 91 unruly-passenger
reports were made to the FAA.
Midway through December, just 87 incidents had been reported
Neither the State Department nor the Department of Homeland
Security would say why the U.S. has not supported the treaty. But concerns
about whether the protocol would undermine the authority of federal air
marshals might have played a role.
MP14 states that ratifying countries aren’t
required to allow in-flight security services from other countries to operate
in their territories. It also says that in cases in which parties have entered
into bilateral or multilateral agreements to allow for the deployment of
in-flight security, an officer may initiate preventive measures only when there
are grounds to believe that doing so is “immediately necessary” to protect the
safety of passengers or the aircraft.
Barry Alexander, aviation group vice chair for the
Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis law firm, said that during the negotiation
of MP14, the U.S. “voiced significant concerns regarding the limited authority
being provided to in-flight security officers.”
“It is unclear, however, whether the United States’ failure
to sign or ratify the protocol to date relates in any way to these concerns,”
Federal Air Marshal Service spokesman Thomas Kelly said that
the entry into force of MP14 won’t have an impact on the ability of the TSA to
deploy air marshals or on their ability to effectively carry out their
“Transportation security is our highest priority, and TSA will
continue to work with our international partners to raise the global bar in
this area,” Kelly said. He added that the U.S. has “a number” of bilateral
agreements with other countries concerning the deployment of marshals, but he
declined to provide more details on the agreements.
Despite IATA’s strong support of MP14, trade group
Airlines for America declined to say where it stands on the treaty. The
Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the U.S.’s largest flight attendants
union, does support it, said spokeswoman Taylor Garland, though she added that
the union would have concerns about any impact MP14 would have on the ability
of U.S. authorities to take action wherever a plane is located.
Garland said that for the most part jurisdictional issues haven’t
been an issue for U.S. flights arriving in common destination countries, such
as Canada and Mexico.
Still, Alexander said MP14 significantly expands
jurisdiction to take action against unruly passengers for the countries that
have signed on.
“I do not think the resolve of the commercial airline
industry to combat the risk of unruly passengers can reasonably be questioned,
nor do I question the United States’ desire to make airline travel as safe as
possible,” he said. “Ratification of Montreal Protocol 14, warts and all, would
represent another step in the right direction.”