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 to land. 

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 unruly-passenger cases. 

“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 for 2019. 

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,” he added. 

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 missions. 

Treaty on unruly passengers takes effect; U.S. not on board

“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.”


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