Extracting Suspects from Commercial Aircraft Safely

The extraction of unruly or even dangerous criminals from crowded, commercial airliners is not an everyday occurrence for an airport officer, although it happens all too frequently.

The extraction of unruly or even dangerous criminals from crowded, commercial airliners is not an everyday occurrence for an airport officer, although it happens all too frequently.  It is a high-liability, high-visibility duty not regularly addressed in training, but it calls for specialized tactics that are well thought out.

Arrests and detentions may be for federal crimes, such as interfering with the flight crew, or enforcing state laws, such as simple battery or indecent exposure.  Anonymous tips regarding arriving passengers with outstanding arrest warrants or drug possession also require law enforcement action.  When confronted by police, suspects sometimes unreasonably refuse to leave their seats.

Tactical guidelines and a planned response are needed for a competent suspect contact prior to any enforcement action.  Included should be guidelines regarding what constitutes criminal law violations vs. federal regulations, hazard identification, controlling passenger egress and crew actions, as well as the forceful extraction of resistive suspects from the aircraft.  Finally, documentation of victim and witness account, and the officer's reactions to the suspect's resistance is crucial.

Due to the number of persons involved in the communication chain (from flight attendant to the pilot to the tower or airline ground staff to public safety communication officer), it can be difficult to obtain accurate information regarding the assistance requested.  The airline ground staff should be contacted by responding officers as early as possible for clarification and detail.

Non-Criminal Violations

Determination by officers of the exact nature of the complaint is crucial for liability reasons.  Smoking on a non-smoking flight or failure to fasten a seat belt or operating unauthorized electronic equipment are not criminal matters.

The FAA does not expect or even recommend a response by law enforcement for such incidents (see the FAA Advisory Circular #120-65, page 7, 10/18/96).  Often airline management and air crews do not understand this.  Their company procedures may call for pilots to summon officers if the subject does not cooperate by providing sufficient information for the flight crew to fill out the appropriate incident report forms.

Officers must understand their role in this process is to keep the peace only.  There is no valid core transaction (a suspected violation of a codified criminal statute) in a civil situation, and any force used by an officer to effect an arrest or detention will be deemed unlawful.

More Serious Violations

In an actual federal or state violation is at issue, a detention is certainly called for.  Most state laws should provide for jurisdiction to act, even if the crime occurred, for example, immediately after takeoff from New York and the aircraft lands in California (officers are encouraged to research their own state laws regarding their jurisdiction of crimes occurring in flight).

Typically, officers are notified of a problem by the flight crew before the aircraft lands.  The name, current seat number, physical description, and the description of any companion(s) should be obtained.  Officers should ask the ground supervisor to advise the flight crew to direct all passengers to remain seated until further notice.  No mention of officers coming on board should be announced.

Once the aircraft lands, a minimum of two, and preferably three or more officers should meet the plane as it taxis to the jetway/disembarking area.  The officers' first objective, after determining there is no immediate safety need, is to identify the subject in question and determine the exact nature of the problem (civil or criminal).  If criminal, the officer in charge should instruct the lead flight attendant to again instruct the passengers to stay seated until further notice.  The officers can then deploy for their enforcement efforts.

If a third officer is available, that officer remains at the open passenger door with the lead flight attendant.  This officer's task is to control announcements made by the flight attendant to prevent escape should the subject bolt away from the arrest team.  (If the subject should escape onto the aircraft operating area (AOA), officers will not pursue, but should notify airport controllers, set up a large perimeter and search when safe.)

Prior to moving to the suspect's location, arrest team officers should remove their side-handled or straight batons from their duty belts.  There is no occasion to use them in such crowded circumstances and they will only get hung up on seats and potentially injure uninvolved passengers.  These can be given to the flight crew for safe keeping.

The arrest team will move directly to the suspect's location.  If she or he complies, the contact officer should ask about and recover carry-on luggage and other items belonging to the suspect.  The suspect is then directed to exit the plane, with both officers following.  All transactions with the cooperative suspect should be performed inside the terminal, not in the jetway or AOA.  This eliminates the hazards posed by other deplaning passengers.

Once the suspect is off the aircraft and all victims and witnesses are identified, the third officer can tell the flight attendant to allow the remaining passengers to disembark.

Physical Extraction

If the suspect refuses to comply with requests to exit, he or she will require extraction.  If the other passengers are released and stand up, attempting to crowd past officers, the situation quickly becomes untenable.  Any physical confrontation with passengers crowding to exit will often result in multiple injuries and a donnybrook in the cinematic proportion of a Mel Brooks movie, although with a much less humorous climax.

Time is also a pressing problem for officers.  Normally, officers are encouraged to talk with a subject for as long as it appears to be tactically viable.  The problem here is that other passengers, who may need to catch connecting flights, may not comply with directions to stay seated for what they may see as an unreasonable time.  Action must be taken quickly, however, once it is determined the suspect is uncooperative.  At this point, the two officers individually ask all the passengers immediately adjacent to the suspect to move to the rear of the aircraft.  This gives the officers operating room without endangering other passengers.[PAGEBREAK]

Any family or friends of the suspect are asked to move to the front of the aircraft where they can be detained, for safety reasons, by the forward officer.

The contact officer should repeat to the suspect, in a professional, courteous tone of voice, loud enough for everyone on the aircraft to hear, that he or she is under arrest and is requested to accompany the officers.

If the suspect still fails to comply, after being issued repeated warnings that noncompliance will result in use of force, officers may apply the following strategy:

The contact officer will take a position to the rear of the seated subject.  The cover officer will move to the row forward of the subject, remaining in the aisle, ready to apply handcuffs.  The contact officer will then reach forward forcefully, taking hold of the suspect's head, immediately turning his forehead into the seat adjacent to the subject.  This pins the suspect's face into the back of the next seat, cushioning his or her face and preventing injury.  The officer not only uses his arm strength, but his entire body weight to secure the suspect in this position.

The contact officer's hands are positioned on the back of the suspect's head and the side of the suspect's jaw.  There should be no pressure on the suspect's neck.  Rather, the pressure is on the back of the suspect's head.  This prevents the suspect from fighting the officer.  The suspect's lower body may become trapped in the seat's arm rest.  This can aid in controlling the suspect's resistance.  If the suspect attempts to become combative or tenses up, preventing his arms from being moved to the rear for cuffing, then pain compliance can be used by the contact officer placing his or her fingers into the underside of the suspect's jaw.  The fingers are firmly directed upward into the attachments of the tongue.  This is very painful and not to be used unless the suspect's resistance warrants it.

The arresting officer then handcuffs the suspect.

If there is resistance, suspects usually demonstrate it by holding their hands under them in tensed flexion, or by blindly striking out at the arresting officer.  The arresting officer should loudly verbalize his or her intentions and instructions to the suspect throughout the enforcement action.

If the arresting officer is not successful in gaining control of the suspect's hands, other force options must be employed.  OC pepper spray or Mace are not appropriate due to the confined space.  Also, application of a carotid restraint is usually not warranted in these cases.  Instead, a quick knee strike or hand strike to the suspect's lateral mid-thigh is often useful as it is painful and temporarily disables the leg.  Remember to loudly warn the suspect that he may be struck if e doesn't stop resisting.  The exact wording and number of warnings should be noted in the arrest report.

Witness statements should be gathered from passengers and airline personnel, and a list of passengers should be obtained from the airline.  Witness statements can (and should) be tape recorded.  This will not only speed up the process, getting them on their way, but will fix their testimonies.

Once the suspect is handcuffed and compliant, he or she can be led off the aircraft and officers can allow the passengers to disembark as rapidly as possible.  If the suspect remains resistive, officers can hold him or her in place and allow the passengers to disembark before removing the suspect from the plane.  Once the passengers are off the aircraft, retrieve any carry-on items the suspect may have.

Thank the aircrew for their cooperation, and also ask them to thank the passengers for their patience.  Remember, there are often between 100 to 300 witnesses to the officers' actions in this situation.  They can be made to be either hostile or friendly, depending upon how the officers conduct themselves.


By maintaining control over the suspect, this difficult tactical problem is more easily and safely resolved.  The airline just wants to get the problem over with so they can meet their schedule.  The other passengers just want to de-plane and move on to their next order of business.  By following the outlined steps, officers can assist the airline and public by safely taking a disruptive and resisting suspect into custody.

Jeff Martin is a sergeant with the San Jose (Calif.) Police Depart.  An 18-year veteran of policing, he is responsible for developing training programs related to officer safety and liability reduction.

George T. Williams has been training police officers for 18 years.  He is director of training for Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, Wash.  For more information, call (360) 671-2007 or e-mail cuttingedge@cio.net.

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