Tipsy passengers, unruly revellers, a cheeky smoke in the loo – it all seems like a bit of fun until somebody gets hurt. Enter the captain…

I am sure that many of you, at some point, will have read media articles about how well paid pilots are. I can neither confirm nor deny this as it depends on who you fly for, what you fly and where you are based. However, as background, I thought you might be interested to know more about the responsibilities and authority of the captain.

First and foremost, the captain is legally responsible for the safety and security of the aircraft and all persons on board. Safety throughout the aviation world is paramount, which is why air travel has earned the reputation of being one of the safest forms of transport. If, at any point, the captain has any concerns in this regard, their decision is final and cannot be overridden.

Before a flight departs, the captain must be satisfied that the aircraft is technically fit to fly, the weather is suitable for the flight and there is sufficient fuel to get to the intended destination. Additionally, the captain has to ensure that air traffic control knows which route is being flown, that the aircraft has been loaded correctly, that security has been checked and that all the customs procedures have been complied with. Once these tasks are complete, the captain will sign two pieces of paper to confirm they are happy to operate the flight.


Another area of responsibility is to ensure that no person’s behaviour while on board endangers the flight or any other person. In this regard, both verbal and physical abuse are wholly unacceptable and against the law. This includes anyone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

While on a British-registered aircraft, UK law applies, even when in flight over other countries. Whenever such situations arise, the captain has the authority to act in order to bring the situation under control. This could involve a verbal warning, asking the police or security services to attend the aircraft on arrival, or, if all else fails, to order the crew to physically restrain the person until the appropriate authorities arrive.

Regarding alcohol, it is actually illegal to be drunk on board an aircraft, and in this regard the captain can refuse boarding or stop the serving of further alcohol to a passenger who, in the crew’s judgement, has had sufficient. Indeed, the captain can refuse boarding to anyone they deem to be a risk to the safety of the flight.

A common situation I have dealt with several times is a passenger refusing to fasten their seatbelt, or to cease using their mobile phone when asked to do so. Again, it is illegal to disobey an order from the crew that relates to the safety of the flight and a warning to that effect, in my experience, resolves the situation very quickly.

There have been occasions where a passenger has, for instance, been smoking in the toilet, or has behaved inappropriately, where a warning has not sufficed and I have called ahead for the police to meet the aircraft. I am pleased to say that, on every occasion, the police have been most supportive and used the full force of the law to deal with the seriousness of the situation.


There are too many responsibilities to detail in this article, but it goes without saying that throughout the flight, the captain is ultimately responsible for any actions or decisions that are taken. It is in an emergency situation where this is most relevant. In these circumstances, the captain must use their skills, and those of the crew, to ensure the outcome is never in doubt. As you might expect, these situations can be highly pressurised and for the captain carry enormous responsibility.

Returning to my comments at the start of this article referring to pay, we say we are not paid for the 99 per cent of the time when everything goes to plan but for the 1 per cent when something unexpected or challenging occurs and you are safely returned to Mother Earth to live another day.

I am often asked, “Do you ever feel the weight of all that responsibility on your shoulders when you are flying?” The answer I give is, “No, we are so well trained that it’s just another day in the office.”