Last updated: 03:30 PM ET, Tue October 27 2015

How Much Authority Do Flight Crews Have To Detain Passengers?

Airlines & Airports | Rich Thomaselli | October 27, 2015

How Much Authority Do Flight Crews Have To Detain Passengers?

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but by now you’ve probably seen the story – a 50-year old woman was handcuffed midflight for using the wrong restroom, the pilot of the flight made an emergency landing, the woman was removed and the flight continued on.

The woman says all she did was use the business class restroom on the plane while holding an economy class ticket. She was nauseous, she said, and the economy class bathrooms were occupied on the flight from Vienna to Abu Dhabi.

The airline, airberlin, said otherwise, claiming that the woman became angry and was a threat to the crew and fellow passengers, prompting the captain to make an emergency landing at Erzurum Airport in Turkey. The woman was removed from the flight.

The truth behind the he-said, she-said incident might never be fully known, but it nonetheless begs the question – does a flight crew have the kind of authority to handcuff a passenger?

The short answer?


At least the captain does.

The 1963 Tokyo Convention specifically outlined the processes airlines may take for any actions committed during flight of an international trip, and those actions do not necessarily have to be illegal (such as being loud and obnoxious). The treaty, still ratified by more than 180 countries as of this year, allows for certain powers for the aircraft commander, “who on international flights may restrain any person(s) he has reasonable cause to believe is committing or is about to commit an offense liable to interfere with the safety of persons or property on board or who is jeopardizing good order and discipline.”

In a blog post on his website,, retired pilot Lim Khoy Hing responded to a similar question about a pilot’s authority and whether it is similar to maritime law and a ship captain’s authority.

Lim wrote: “Yes, the power of an aircraft commander (Captain) is the same as that of a ship’s captain. … In other words, he could give orders to handcuff any troublemaker on board the plane and hand him over to security on landing. In addition he could “disembark any person endangering the safety of the flight or to deliver such person under restraint to the competent authorities…”

However, any decision to arrest and/or prosecute is solely for authorities on the ground. The pilot does not have that kind of authority.

Airline expert Chris Lopinto recently told The Huffington Post,  “The captain…can put you in restraints for the authorities to pick up on the ground if there is a problem, but the captain can’t ‘arrest’ you in the legal sense of the word,” he says.

So in the incident involving the woman who was handcuffed, the captain had every right to do so if he felt she was a threat to the crew or the safety of the plane.

Whether the punishment – restrainment, being removed from the plane in a strange town – fit the crime remains to be played out.


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