Which country’s laws apply when you fly an airplane? It’s complicated

Whose rules rule the sky? When you are sailing at 30,000 feet, is this the country you are flying over, the country you are landing in or the laws of another country?

On a domestic flight, passengers who are drunk and disorderly, assault the crew or other passengers, or attempt to wrestle open an emergency exit door are liable to prosecution under the laws of the country in which the aircraft is flying. But on an international flight things get more complicated.

The laws governing flights vary and can affect things like who can serve alcohol.

The laws governing flights vary and can affect things like who can serve alcohol.Credit: iStock

Offenses committed on international flights are covered by the Convention on Offenses and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft, known as the Tokyo Convention. Under the treaty, actions that endanger the safe operation of the aircraft, threaten other passengers or insult or intimidate anyone on an international flight are subject to the relevant laws in the country where the aircraft is registered.

In January 2024, a heavily intoxicated American passenger on an ANA flight from Tokyo to Seattle bit a cabin crew member’s arm. The plane was an hour into the flight and could have continued to Seattle, but the pilot chose to return to Japan, the country where the plane was registered, so that the biter could be dealt with under Japanese law.

In January 2022, an Irish passenger on a Delta flight from Dublin to New York was violent, abusive and disruptive. He refused to wear a mask or seat belt, exposed his buttocks, violently kicked the seatback of the passenger in front of him and threatened the captain. . The unpleasant behavior started almost as soon as he was on board, but the plane, registered in the US, flew on to New York, where he was charged under US law.

Because an aircraft on an international route is subject to the laws of the country of registration, the Tokyo Convention creates a number of curious anomalies. If an 18-year-old is traveling on a Qantas flight between Australia and the US, he or she can be served alcohol, but if that same teenager is flying on United Airlines, he or she cannot, as the minimum drinking age in the US is 21 years old.

During the pandemic, when some countries required passengers on board their airlines to wear masks, passengers on other airlines flying the same route were able to fly mask-free if the country where the aircraft was registered did not require it.

Where the Tokyo Convention falls short

The Tokyo Treaty was adopted in 1963, and the increasing number of passengers behaving badly in the intervening years exposed a flaw. If a violent incident occurs during an international flight, the aircraft may not land in the country of registration and the perpetrator could be prosecuted.

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