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So Justin Bieber was in the news again a couple of days ago:

Pilots on Justin Bieber’s Plane Had to Wear Masks Because of Pot Smoke

What are pilots legally obligated to do in a situation like this where the passengers (allegedly) are doing drugs or any other illegal activity?

Notify ATC, call 911, or land immediately? Are any of these required or can you tell them to stop and if they comply you are good?

Are there any good recommendations on how to handle the passengers?

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Take out their baseballs bats and beat the pathetic little runt to a pulp? Job done? – Simon Feb 12 '14 at 22:06
Probably they did start this petition ;) – Farhan Apr 16 '14 at 21:29
According to the report the pilots did everything they reasonably could. – davidjwest Apr 1 '15 at 11:20

I think a lot would depend on the type of illegal activity observed. For example, if someone was getting injured or worse, that would mean the crew would need to take immediate and aggressive action, which would include possibly putting themselves in some danger to protect the victim, at least to a certain degree. That said, getting the plane down safely would be higher priority for safety all the way around so protecting the victim needs to be weighed against the risk of getting injured to the point the pilot can no longer fly the plane.

In the Bieber's case, escalating the situation by trying to intervene would only create risk of the crew being injured and then unable to bring the plane down with no real upside. Putting out a warning, then proceeding to a suitable airport immediately would seem to be the most prudent course of action.

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On certain charter flights (professional sports teams) when the passengers get too rowdy the crew sometimes "adjusts" the cabin altitude. – Dan Pichelman Feb 10 '14 at 14:46
@DanPichelman: Is there any reliable source for that? Although a decrease in pressure (and available oxygen) can generally make people more drowsy, it can also enhance the effects of alcohol, and impair what little judgement/self control rowdy passengers have left. It seems to me that decreasing cabin pressure would be a mixed bag, with unpredictable results, and therefore, not advised. – abelenky Feb 10 '14 at 15:28
I'm not sure that I follow the difference between what you are saying that the pilots should do in your first -vs- second paragraph. In both you say to proceed to a suitable airport immediately? – Lnafziger Feb 10 '14 at 16:06
Oh, I was trying to separate where, if I were the pilot, I would chose to stay in the cockpit and fly to a destination so as not to either escalate the situation risking injury and perhaps a pilotless plane versus when I would risk that if someone were in trouble. I didn't write that out well, it appears. – David Espina Feb 10 '14 at 16:33
@DanPichelman: Isn't the change in cabin pressure going to affect the FAs and the pilots too? I don't think the pilots would want to don their masks just to reduce the cabin pressure for rowdy pax. – shortstheory Feb 10 '14 at 17:30

FAR 91.19 says:

§ 91.19 Carriage of narcotic drugs, marihuana, and depressant or stimulant drugs or substances. (a) Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this section, no person may operate a civil aircraft within the United States with knowledge that narcotic drugs, marihuana, and depressant or stimulant drugs or substances as defined in Federal or State statutes are carried in the aircraft. (b) Paragraph (a) of this section does not apply to any carriage of narcotic drugs, marihuana, and depressant or stimulant drugs or substances authorized by or under any Federal or State statute or by any Federal or State agency.

So the FAA seems to say that if you know about it than you should not take the flight. This makes it seem that if you started to smell pot smoke while you flying you now have knowledge of it and should take some action. Also FAR 91.17 says:

§ 91.17 Alcohol or drugs. (a) No person may act or attempt to act as a crewmember of a civil aircraft— (1) Within 8 hours after the consumption of any alcoholic beverage; (2) While under the influence of alcohol; (3) While using any drug that affects the person's faculties in any way contrary to safety; or (4) While having an alcohol concentration of 0.04 or greater in a blood or breath specimen. Alcohol concentration means grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood or grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath. (b) Except in an emergency, no pilot of a civil aircraft may allow a person who appears to be intoxicated or who demonstrates by manner or physical indications that the individual is under the influence of drugs (except a medical patient under proper care) to be carried in that aircraft. (c) A crewmember shall do the following: (1) On request of a law enforcement officer, submit to a test to indicate the alcohol concentration in the blood or breath, when— (i) The law enforcement officer is authorized under State or local law to conduct the test or to have the test conducted; and (ii) The law enforcement officer is requesting submission to the test to investigate a suspected violation of State or local law governing the same or substantially similar conduct prohibited by paragraph (a)(1), (a)(2), or (a)(4) of this section. (2) Whenever the FAA has a reasonable basis to believe that a person may have violated paragraph (a)(1), (a)(2), or (a)(4) of this section, on request of the FAA, that person must furnish to the FAA the results, or authorize any clinic, hospital, or doctor, or other person to release to the FAA, the results of each test taken within 4 hours after acting or attempting to act as a crewmember that indicates an alcohol concentration in the blood or breath specimen. (d) Whenever the Administrator has a reasonable basis to believe that a person may have violated paragraph (a)(3) of this section, that person shall, upon request by the Administrator, furnish the Administrator, or authorize any clinic, hospital, doctor, or other person to release to the Administrator, the results of each test taken within 4 hours after acting or attempting to act as a crewmember that indicates the presence of any drugs in the body.

(e) Any test information obtained by the Administrator under paragraph (c) or (d) of this section may be evaluated in determining a person's qualifications for any airman certificate or possible violations of this chapter and may be used as evidence in any legal proceeding under section 602, 609, or 901 of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958.

This means that as the pilot you need to stay sober and this likely why the pilots of the aircraft donned their (I'm assuming oxygen) masks. This however, is only the Federal Aviation Regulations. That is, Title 14 (Aeronautics and Space) of the Code of Federal Regulations. So even though the FAA might take a blind eye to you if your passengers had marijuana or cocaine or some other illegal substance and you had no knowledge it still doesn't mean that Federal, State, or local law enforcement couldn't try to nail you on possession charges. I would say pretty safely that as the pilot as soon as you find out there are illegal drugs on board it is your obligation to reduce exposure to the crew and to discontinue flight as soon AS SAFELY possible.

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There's a legal obligation per the FARs, but then there is a flight safety obligation that trumps the FARs. Right? For safety of flight, violate away. This assumes of course the crew did not know about the drugs before wheels up. Once wheels up, safety takes precedence...at least in my view. – David Espina Feb 10 '14 at 19:06
Well yeah, obviously you wouldn't ditch the aircraft or something. I'm just saying once you know that you are illegal it's time to land the plane. I'll bold the part where I said AS SAFELY as possible. – p1l0t Feb 10 '14 at 19:15
91.17 seems like a bit of a stretch here, since the crew wasn't the one taking the drugs (and it might even "cloud" the issue here ;-) ). So the reg says that we can't "operate" the aircraft, but what about the rest of the question? Are we required to report it? – Lnafziger Feb 11 '14 at 0:55
There is nothing in the FARs that I know of about reporting it. If you do inhale (no Bill Clinton jokes please) though I think 91.17 applies.. – p1l0t Feb 11 '14 at 1:01

Disclaimer: I am neither aviator nor lawyer.

I don't think there is any special law regarding illegal activity on board of an aircraft. So:

  • If the activity creates a safety risk, the commander should do whatever they evaluate as the safest way to continue or end the flight. Flying the aircraft is a priority, but if lives of the pilots are in danger, they should do whatever they can to defend themselves including extreme manoeuvres (like FedEx 705) or the reduction of cabin altitude mentioned in the comments (passenger oxygen masks will fall out automatically, but one can't move around cabin while breathing from those, so it still might provide useful help).

  • Otherwise it's just the general criminal law that applies. Most jurisdictions require that anybody who finds about serious crime reports it except if they believe their close relative might have committed it. This obligation applies to murder (including attempted) and treason and might apply to other crimes depending on the country. For international flights the country of operator should be applicable, but the legal terms unfortunately seem to be a mess.

    As to how you report it, the most efficient way would be to tell ATC that you had a crime on board and request police to meet you on landing. Unless you can't do that because the offender would hear it and endanger the aircraft more.

    Whether to land immediately depends on the same concern. Expedient landing will tip the offender that they are going to be arrested and they may fight. There was recently a case when police found who committed a murder, but he just boarded a plane from Vienna to New York. They told the crew, but elected to continue the flight so he didn't suspect they know about him though it made it more difficult for the justice than arresting him on the EU ground.

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