United Airlines has explicitly warned its flight attendants not to use duct tape to subdue unruly or violent passengers after a rash of recent incidents in which flight attendants at several other airlines have resorted to the unusual restraint method.
In the course of just a few weeks, duct tape has been used to restrain at least three unruly passengers. Using duct tape as a restrain tool seemed unusual at first when news reports highlighted how flight attendants at American Airlines taped a woman to her seat after she attacked a crewmember last month.
Then it happened again. This time on a Frontier Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Miami when a young male passenger allegedly sexually assaulted one of the female flight attendants.
And just a few days ago, flight attendants at American Airlines were at it again. On this occasion, duct-taping a 13-year-old boy to his seat after he allegedly attacked his mother. It turns out, duct tape has been a favored method of restraint for flight attendants at some airlines for years.
There are even several reports of flight attendants at United Airlines using duct tape to restrain passengers but these were back in 2003 and 2008 and the Chicago-based carrier doesn’t condone its use.
In the first instance, flight attendants should be doing everything to deescalate a situation but if restraint is unavoidable, the airline says flight attendants have other “designated items” that should be used instead of duct tape.
“Please remember that there are designated items onboard that may be used in difficult situations, and alternative measures such as tape should never be used,” a recent memo sent to United’s flight attendants explained.
In fact, nearly every airline has some form of designated restraint equipment onboard which can be used when authorized by the Commander of the aircraft (usually the Captain but whichever pilot is in command at the time). Sometimes, this is just zip ties and extension seatbelts, others are more elaborate like the Quick Strap System used by British Airways.
American Airlines also has restraint cuffs available.
A spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said restraint should only ever be used as a last resort but that “cabin crew are trained in de-escalation and restraint techniques and equipment (if carried) by their airline.”
“There is no industry standard restraint equipment, so it is up to the individual airline. Some airlines may equip their cabins with kits that include restraint devices,” a statement from the industry body continued.
What is within that restraint kit can vary massively. Korean Air, for example, arms its flight attendants with Taser stun guns. Following an unruly passenger incident in 2016, the airline changed its use of force policy to allow the stun guns to be used to subdue disruptive passengers more often.
And one item that certainly isn’t within that kit at United Airlines is duct tape. In fact, duct tape wasn’t approved for use at Frontier Airlines when flight attendants used it on a passenger earlier this month.
That prompted Frontier Airlines to initially suspend the flight attendants involved for failing to follow the “proper policies” for passenger restraint. Following an intervention from the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), the airline backed down but the flight attendants remain on administrative leave and disciplinary action could still be taken against them.
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Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.