Why Do Passengers On Planes Pee On Others?

In my 40 years of working in air transport, I have not come across an instance where a passenger committed an offence on board by unburdening the contents of his bladder on a fellow passenger. 

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File Photo: Boeing 777-300 ER N789AN American Airlines during landing, at Leonardo da Vinci airport. Fiumicino (Italy), April 18th, 2023 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

“When people try to rain on your parade, pee on theirs.” ― Josh Stern, And That’s Why I’m Single: What Good Is Having A Lucky Horseshoe Up Your Butt When The Horse Is Still Attached?

It happened again!!

On Monday, April 24th, a passenger on American Airlines flight 292 out of John F. Kennedy Airport, New York, bound for Indira Ghandhi International Airport, New Delhi was arrested on arrival by Indian police for  allegedly urinating on another passenger on board. This is admittedly a long 15 hour flight which is highly likely to cause frayed nerves in the most patient of the human species.  However, one wonders whether an undesirable natural corollary to irritation between two passengers could justify one of the quarreling passengers resorting to directing his urinary flow towards his opponent to prove his point and win the fight. Of course, the intoxicated state of the offender which would have facilitated an enhanced proclivity to evacuate his bladder, was no excuse for the affront seemingly executed with malicious intent. 

The BBC, on 9 January 2023 reported on an incident that had taken place on 26 November 2022 in which a drunken male passenger (who else but a male?) had allegedly urinated on a female passenger on board a flight operated by Air India. The victim had filed a complaint sometime later after the alleged assaultThere was general consensus among the Indian public that the airline had not handled the incident professionally (partly because the cabin crew had indiscreetly brought the offending passenger to the victim after the fact so he could apologize). 

Another incident in February 2022 occurred on a Southwest Airlines flight from Dallas to Burbank, California where a passenger  was arrested after he urinated near a galley door and threatened flight attendants. It was reported that “The Southwest Airlines flight diverted to Albuquerque because the crew members “feared for their safety as well as that of the flight…It was the latest example of the rise in unruly passenger behavior that has prompted stepped-up enforcement by federal officials and calls from the airline industry to add disruptive fliers to a national no-fly list”.  The facts pertaining to the incident are curious as much as bizarre.  “According to the complaint…the incident began when passenger Samson Hardridge, 33, of Lancaster, Calif., got up during the flight to use the lavatory at the back of the plane. A flight attendant asked him to stand in the aisle because space was tight in the galley. At that point, according to the complaint, Hardridge had his hands in his pants and asked if the flight attendant wanted to see his genitals. The answer was no” . The crew had, with the minimum loss of patience, repeatedly reminded the offender to remain in the aisle but he had “proceeded to the aft galley door of the aircraft and began urinating in the corner of the aircraft”.

On March 9th 2021, on a flight from Seattle to Denver on board an Alaska Airlines flight, a passenger on board who had been repeatedly requested by the cabin crew to wear a face mask had blatantly ignored the requests and repeatedly struck a cabin crew member on the arm. Evidence provided by other passengers revealed that “the individual was standing up and urinating on his seat”. The charge against the 24 year old offender is that he was “interfering with a flight crew in violation of Title 49, United States Code, Section 46504.” This charge carries a potential penalty of up to 20 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $250,000.

In March 2019 it was reported that a drunk American Airlines passenger urinated on another passenger’s luggage during a flight from Chicago to Charlotte, North Carolina. The 28-year-old complainant had said that the offender had soiled her carry-on luggage with urine.

My Take

Enuresis, or urinating in inappropriate places, is usually an involuntary act attributed to children after the age of 5 years old, at which point they normally develop control of their bladder. Most of the time, the episodes are involuntary, but they can also be intentional

In my 40 years of working in air transport, I have not come across an instance where a passenger committed an offence on board by unburdening the contents of his bladder on a fellow passenger.  I have dealt with and taught aviation law under both the Montreal Convention of 1999 and the Tokyo Convention of 1963 where the former speaks of death or injury caused by accidents on board or in the process of embarkation or disembarkation, and, more to the point of this case, the latter addresses offences committed on board aircraft.  Between the offender and the direct victim, the law is straightforward: an offence is an offence, whether one physically assaults another or empties his bladder on another. Peeing on board whether specifically directed at another or directed anywhere else in the cabin  comes under Article 1 of the Tokyo Convention which says inter alia that the Convention applies in respect of: (a) offences against penal law; (b) acts which, whether or not they are offences, may or do jeopardize the safety of the aircraft or of persons or property therein or which jeopardize good order and discipline on board. The “good order and discipline” element is what is applicable here.

But this is not the end of the story.  Whereas any other offence envisions hurt caused only to the victim a public pee on board an aircraft may be termed a public nuisance.  A public nuisance is any act, condition, or thing that is illegal because it interferes with the rights of the public generally.

In the ordinary course of business, aircraft carry thieves, con men, pick pockets, sexual predators…you name it, but when they commit offences on board they do not, and indeed have not (to my understanding) urinated on others. Therefore, this trend which is recent must have other connotations.  There must be a psychological factor attached that is linked to the hectic world we live in which is getting busier by the day.  Or, is it that peeing gives a sense of release from an opponent with the final insult? Is it because, as Tom Holt said “There are few moments of clarity more profound than those that follow the emptying of an overcharged bladder. The world slows down, the focus sharpens, the brain comes back online. Huge nebulous difficulties prove on close calm examination to be merely cloud giants”?

Perhaps these public pee-ers are descendants of Diogenes who is reputed to have urinated in public.  His argument was that human society infused us with all kinds of unacceptable constraints and we should strip ourselves of these corrupting man-made constructs, so we’re able to live how we’re supposed to live: in agreement with nature.

I am waiting for the psychologists to weigh in on this interesting trend.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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