In 2013, airlines worldwide reported 8,000 'unruly passengers' incidents, but let's put that in perspective: There were about 740 million flyers in the U.S. alone that year who weren't behaving badly. Nevertheless, the International Air Transport Association says it's a growing and significant problem.
There have been lots of bizarre stories in recent years, including an apparently drunken United passenger who swigged liquid soap from a plane's lavatory then tried to bite a flight attendant's leg, or the Spirit passenger who allegedly groped fellow travelers and crew members.
The IATA is looking for solutions to this problem.
Here is my two cents:
1. Alcohol consumption caps
Limit alcoholic beverage sales to two drinks per person, per 3,000 miles (about the length of a cross-country trip). The flight attendant could entertain polite requests to exceed the limit on a case-by-case basis, but the seatmates of those requesting another jolt would get a veto.
2. Party zones and quiet zones
Some planes are livelier than others, like flights to Vegas or maybe the Super Bowl--which is no fun if you want to nap or read. Put the raucous group in back and designate a quiet zone upfront. Maybe volunteers could be enticed into mid-plane buffer zone duty with free snacks.
3. Three strikes, you're out
A crew member's word is law on a plane; you disobey at your peril. Maybe it's time to up the ante for those not yet in the unruly category but heading that way with a three strike rule.
Earn a single strike each time a flight attendant has to say, "Turn off that phone," or "Buckle that belt." Another strike might be a seatmate's complaint like, "Don't be an armrest hog!" If the plane is still at the gate when a third strike is earned, he or she is escorted off. If it happens in mid-air, the other passengers could vote on a penalty. Please note that duct-taping an unruly passenger to an airline seat is not unheard of.
4. Better training for flight attendants
Many flight attendants get some training in peaceful conflict resolution but with 8,000 incidents a year, it's clearly not enough. Perhaps seminars with real conflict experts like NHL or NFL referees would do the trick.
5. Lighten up
A security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport boasts a TSA agent who entertains passengers with standup routines ("That's a very manly zebra bag you have, sir") --but we like the Southwest model best. The airline's fun-loving flight attendants turn safety demonstrations into comedy routines ("It's a no-smoking, no-whining, no-complaining flight [but] it is a 'please' and 'thank you' and 'you are such a good-looking flight attendant' flight.") and occasionally sing to passengers or play games with them. I suspect it's hard to stay unruly when you're deeply involved a rousing game of Which Passenger has the Ugliest Driver's License.