Flights diverted by unruly passengers cost airlines

Most flights take off and land without issue. But at least one prominent aviation organization says unruly passengers in the air are an escalating problem.

On a flight Monday from New York to West Palm Beach, Florida, a dispute between two passengers got out of control.

According to a police report, after a 32-year-old woman put her head down on a tray table, the person reclining in front of her "struck her on the head."

Three flight attendants reported that the 32-year-old became "disruptive" and "combative." The plane was diverted to Jacksonville.

That incident was one of at least three in the last week where planes made unscheduled landings.

In June, a Jet Blue passenger caused a New York-Las Vegas flight to divert to Detroit.

In November, another man's threat caused a Spirit Airlines flight to divert.

According to the airlines' global trade association, in the past three years there has been one "unruly passenger" incident for every 1,300 flights.

The delays add up. One independent airline analyst says delays cost $6,000 an hour plus airport landing fees for some domestic jets.

Steven Wallace, a former accident investigator with the Federal Aviation Administration, says pilots will not divert the plane unless they absolutely must.

"I think diversion is the last resort, it's a tremendous inconvenience to the passengers, and it's a tremendous cost to the airline," Wallace said. "Passengers may miss connect, they may have to dump fuel if they go off on a long flight and then turn back right at the beginning of it. That definitely is a last result."

During a 12-month period ending in June, there were nearly 15,000 flight diversions by U.S. airlines, about 41 flights a day.

In many cases, planes divert because of weather or mechanical problems. In cases where there is a passenger disruption, flight crews have to make a determination: Will the person harm others or is there a security threat?