Can common social offences lead to criminal charges?
Economy flights are a lot like a cheap bottle of wine.
When you first meet, they promise to be your best friend, who will take you on exciting and exotic adventures.
Until you spend a few hours together, and realise it was all a trick.
The unmistakable and heady cabin aroma floods your senses, mixing with faint undertones of excrement that steadily waft your way. You realise that you have unwittingly become part of something unfit for human consumption.
In the first of our Laws Of Travel Etiquette Series, we examine the social laws of aeroplane seat reclining, how to avoid antagonising other passengers, and whether you can be held criminally liable for in-flight offences.
Like the first drops of bad wine, long haul flights are an emotional and psychological ordeal.
From cramped seating and sleep deprivation, to cupboard-sized bathrooms and shrieking children, it is not hard to see how a small indiscretion can quickly spiral into full-tilt passenger-on-passenger madness.
In a recent budget airlines horror story one woman recounted an 8-hour assault on her senses by a fellow passenger’s bare feet she described as smelling like the ‘anus of satan.’
Other common mid-flight experiences involve couples found licking each other’s fingers, children becoming seat kickers, and bathrooms becoming fully fledged war zones.
In these conditions, a seat reclined an inch beyond acceptable standards can rapidly spark arguments and lead to violence. The proliferation of ‘air rage’ over reclining seats has seen many planes diverted and resulted in passengers being kicked off flights at unscheduled destinations.
In one recent incident, a man using a banned device called the ‘knee defender’, which attaches to a passenger’s tray table and disables the reclining mechanism of the seat in front, was verbally abused, had water thrown on him and caused the flight to be diverted. In another case, two people had to be subdued by air marshals over a seat reclining disagreement.
So when is it considered okay to recline your seat?
The Laws Of An Acceptable Seat Recline
Patrick Smith from Business Insider describes people who thrust their chairs back at full speed, leaving a split second to recover laptops, personal items or drinks, as ‘assault recliners.’
With ever-dwindling personal space and cramped airline conditions, there are few situations these days that warrant reclining your seat to maximum capacity. To survive a long haul flight and avoid antagonising those around you, it is essential to keep calm and accept the situation.
The more you drink in your surroundings, the more tolerable the experience will become.
When deciding whether to recline, always peek behind to check:
- If the person behind you has reclined their chair. If they have, feel free to recline yours to a lesser or equivalent angle – never more
- If the person is sleeping or has their tray table up. If so, recline only as far as you reasonably need to be comfortable
- For long haul flights, people are generally more considerate of the need for extra space. If you do want to recline, try to wait at least 45 minutes after take off. On longer flights passengers tend to move around the plane, retrieve personal items from overhead lockers or under their seat. This extra grace period allows everyone to get settled and comfortable without causing any angst.
If you decide to recline, do so slowly!
Social Offences And Times When You Should Not Recline
There are many situations where breaching someone’s personal space with your seat is in poor taste. Avoid reclining your chair when the person behind you:
- Has a baby on their lap
- Is working on a laptop, especially if their tray table is open
- Is eating or has drinks on their table
- Is not immediately visible. For example, because they are retrieving a blanket from under their seat or are leaning forward to reach the in-flight magazines. The last thing you want to do is render someone unconscious with the dull thud of your seat back.
- For short flights, avoid reclining at all (1-2 hours). Unless you have a medical condition, everyone can endure a couple of hours of discomfort.
‘Altitude Sickness:’ What Happens If You Behave Poorly On A Flight?
Just because you are flying over international waters does not mean that you are above the law.
Every airport is covered by a local policing agency. Losing your temper and abusing other passengers or flight attendants, getting drunk and interfering with flight crew, assaulting another passenger or flight attendant or generally behaving in a way that is disorderly or lewd is punishable by fines, arrest and imprisonment in the city where you land.
Alarmingly, the incidence of crimes of opportunity, such as sexual assaults on flights are increasing. In many cases, women are groped by a passenger next to them and are too shocked to report it. In a flight from Japan to Hawaii, a woman was attacked and trapped in the bathroom with the offender, before flight crew were forced to break the door off the hinge to free her.
In a recent Australian case, a man repeatedly punched a sleeping passenger in the face and was charged with assault on landing. In another recent incident, a man from Perth has been fined $10,000 and ordered to pay over $58,000 for aggressive and abusive behaviour causing a Virgin flight to turn back to its departure city.
Flights and air travel are generally governed by aviation legislation. In Australia, these subjects are covered by the Crimes (Aviation) Act 1991.
Cases of air rage and other offences carried out on a plane can attract criminal charges, for example:
- Acts Of Violence
Whether directed at another passenger or crew members, an Australian citizen can be charged with this offence even if it occurs when the flight is over another country.
- Endangering Safety
Many laws govern both passengers and crew who deliberately or recklessly endanger the safety of other passengers or the flight itself. For example, a passenger trying to open a door.
- Assaulting Crew
Assaulting a crew member on board an aircraft is an offence that is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment.
- Carrying Dangerous Goods
If you carry or place dangerous goods on an aircraft, or have them with you (in your bag or your pocket, for example) while on a flight, you can be charged and face a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
Under Australian law this an offence when committed on a domestic flight or by an Australian citizen on a flight in another country.
These days, safely and comfortably navigating air travel is a nuanced experience. Be conscious of your own behaviour, and the behaviour of those around you. If you decide to recline your seat, make sure you do it in a respectful way that treats other passengers the way you would like to be treated.
Remember that if a passenger near you is behaving in an agitated manner, or makes you feel uneasy, you are within your rights to request to move seats.
If you are assaulted in-flight, report the incident to flight crew immediately. They are trained to deal with assaults and will make arrangements for the offender to be dealt with.