Just as some Americans started feeling better about travel during the pandemic, airline passengers found they have another thing to worry about — fellow passengers.
The number of rowdy, sometimes violent incidents aboard planes is skyrocketing, putting travelers at risk. Federal Aviation Administration officials say that as of mid-August they’ve logged nearly 3,900 unruly passenger reports, about 2,800 related to wearing masks.
So far this year, 682 investigations (more than twice the previous 2004 high of 310) have been done, and offenders have been assessed a record $1 million in potential fines.
Federal Aviation Administration and airline officials say the offenses range from refusing to wear a mask to throwing suitcases and other items to physical confrontations. In one case, a flight crew member was punched in the face and lost two teeth. In another, a man was fined for fighting and trying to put his head under a flight attendant’s dress. And in several incidents, altercations have resulted in diverted flights.
Combine these skirmishes in the skies with increased incidents of road rage, pugilistic parents at kids’ sports games and ugly, random acts of carjacking and other violence on the streets, and you can see the anger in America in 2021. This is not the kind of world we want to live in. Americans need to calm down and, as the Star Tribune Editorial Board argued last month after a Twin Cities man was killed in a road-rage shooting, we have to resist normalizing violent, aggressive behavior.
Yet, according to flight attendants, threatening behavior, harassment and physical altercations have become normal experiences for cabin crews this summer. Due to the increase in violence, more airline crew workers are taking self-defense classes to protect themselves and others.
A recent Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union survey reported that 85% of its members had dealt with difficult and sometimes violent passengers during 2021. The poll included 5,000 flight attendants from 30 airlines; over half of them said that they had experienced five or more such incidents, and 17% said they were involved in an incident that got physical.
The flight attendants survey confirmed that mask compliance, routine safety reminders, flight delays and cancellations were common factors in the ugly onboard incidents. And they confirmed that alcohol is often involved, prompting some airline staffers to urge alcohol bans on flights.
Problems aboard planes prompted a coalition of aviation unions and industry stakeholders to send a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting that federal prosecutors dedicate more resources for egregious cases.
”Aviation safety is a federal matter that impacts passengers and crew members across the country as well as in interstate travel; it is not a local issue subject to jurisdictional variations,” they wrote.
Those who would even think about getting out of hand on a flight should consider the serious consequences. Interfering with the staff doing their jobs on a flight violates federal law. Bad behavior on a plane can result in substantial fines — up to $37,000 per violation. One incident can generate multiple violations, which can drive fines even higher.
Some airline staffers are pressing for even stronger penalties. That’s not a bad idea. Violent, aggressive passengers put others at risk in the air.