You may have been following the story of Cho Hyn-ah and the “nut incident”. Ms Cho is the daughter of Korean Air’s chief executive and was herself a senior executive and the head of the airline’s in-flight services. In December, shortly after boarding a flight from New York, Ms Cho flew into a rage after she was served some macadamia nuts in a bag rather than on a plate. Due to this, whilst the plane was on the runway she ordered it to turn back to the terminal to eject the head of the cabin crew.

Whilst all of this seems quite ridiculous, there is a serious side to this story. Ms Cho has since been found guilty of violating aviation laws by a South Korean court and sentenced to a year in prison. The court ruled that Ms Cho was guilty of forcing the plane to change its route, obstructing the flight’s captain in the performance of his duties, forcing a senior crew member off the plane and assaulting another crew member who served her the nuts. Ms Cho has appealed against the court ruling.

For airline passengers the message is that it is important to behave appropriately whilst on board an aircraft. Unacceptable behaviour can be disruptive to other passengers, endanger safety and lead to serious consequences for the individual involved.

The Tokyo Convention 1963 (the Tokyo Convention) applies to criminal offences committed on board an aircraft that is flying internationally. This sets out the overall principles for contracting states to follow and also grants powers to the aircraft commander and the crew. For instance, an aircraft commander who has reasonable grounds to believe that a person has committed, or is about to commit, an offence on board an aircraft may impose such reasonable measures, including restraint, as they deem necessary to maintain the safety of the aircraft, good order and discipline and deliver the person involved in the incident to the competent authorities.

Many of the contracting states to the Tokyo Convention have incorporated the principles into the black letter law in their jurisdiction. For example, under English law, section 142 of the Air Navigation Order 2009 states that a person must not while in an aircraft: (a) use any threatening, abusive, insulting or disorderly words towards a member of the crew of the aircraft; (b) behave in a threatening, abusive, insulting or disorderly manner towards a member of the crew of the aircraft; or (c) intentionally interfere with the performance by a member of the crew of the aircraft of the crew member’s duties. The penalties for committing one of these offences under English law range from a fine to a prison sentence. Your booking and ticket conditions will repeat these provisions.

Depending on which jurisdiction an offence is held to be committed in will depend on the penalty that is enforced. Under the Tokyo Convention the state of registration of an aircraft is competent to establish jurisdiction. There are exceptions to this in relation to criminal acts committed on board where, for example, the offence has effect on the territory of a state or was committed by or against one of its nationals. This is due to be extended by the Montreal Protocol 2014 (the Montreal Protocol) which will come into force once ratified. The Montreal Protocol will allow the state of landing (when offences are committed in the state’s territory with the alleged offender still on board) and the state of the operator to be competent to exercise jurisdiction. A state of landing must ascertain if the offence is considered an offence in the state of the operator.

Whilst the facts of this story were extreme (and made for some interesting headlines for a while) there can be a serious side to unacceptable passenger behaviour.