KOLD INVESTIGATES: Unruly passengers in Tucson

KOLD Investigates: Unruly passengers

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The Transportation Security Administration estimates more than 2.5 million airline passengers will be screened daily in the days leading up to, and directly following, Thanksgiving.

If any of your travel plans to Tucson International Airport happen to be sidetracked by an unruly passenger, research by KOLD Investigates shows the responsible individual is likely to receive a minimal citation, if any punishment at all.

Instances when police have had to go "hands on" with someone are rare at TUS. Police records from Tucson Airport Authority show just four cases in as many years.

“We get three and a half million people coming though here a year, and just mathematically, there are going to be some people who don’t behave appropriately,” said TAA Chief of Public Safety John Ivanoff.

Appropriate behavior on a plane is pretty well ingrained into society: find your seat, follow orders from the flight crew and don’t make a fuss. Ivanoff said airline workers will call police to intervene for all sorts of scenarios, but officers will only respond when they believe it involves a crime.

Flight crews have to handle cranky or ungrateful passengers, but Ivanoff said his team will receive the call for help once someone on board becomes a danger to the crew or passengers.

"A criminal act is a criminal act," he said. "The difference is that the people on the aircraft can't get away from the criminal act when it's happening."

Simply Follow Orders

Ivanoff said the best advice for anyone stuck in the midst of an unruly passenger problem, should simply follow orders of the flight crew and responding officers. He said some scenarios will call for passengers to stay seated or possibly deplane.

In one of the four incidents in recent years, passengers actively restrained a man who was attempting to open the cockpit door. Ivanoff said he doesn’t necessarily recommend passengers jump into action like that, but he’s aware that some would do it.

"Prior to 9/11 we were a passive community," he said. "Now we're not."

The passenger trying to access the cockpit was the most recent unruly passenger for Tucson International Airport, according to police reports. The case has not appeared in any local court for possible criminal charges. That flight left Los Angeles bound for Phoenix but was diverted to Tucson.

A diverted flight more than two years prior prompted an F-16 escort to TUS. On the way from San Antonio to Los Angeles, a passenger frightened people enough to require an emergency landing in the Old Pueblo.

One of the passengers claimed to see a man with a gun threatening to kill people. There was no such person on board. The individual making the claim was suffering from mental illness, according to police. First responders searched the plane, helped the passengers off and searched the plane a second time.

Punishment is rare

Though the FBI responded to this call, the incident did not result in any fines, fees, citations or charges from the Federal Aviation Administration, TSA or federal prosecutors.

In fact, federal agencies did not purse any of the four cases that landed at Tucson International.

Two of the four cases resulted in misdemeanor charges for the unruly passengers. Ivanoff said that doesn't necessarily mean they left the airport with a light punishment.

"A misdemeanor arrest on an aircraft means something," he said. "It means something to the TSA, so they notice things like that. They recognize that somebody was unruly on an aircraft and maybe they're not going to be so happy with them anymore."

Of those two misdemeanor cases, one has been paid resulting in a quashed warrant. There is an outstanding warrant for the other, who needs to pay a $50 fine. Both of those individuals were on flights already bound for Tucson International Airport.

Reflecting on decades of service at the airport, Ivanoff could only recall one instance when officers arrested a passenger on a felony charge. He said that was early in his career.

Ivanoff maintains the airport is, and always has been, a safe place for employees and passengers alike.

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