Flying The Unfriendly Skies–Number Of Unruly Passengers Sky High

Aerophobia, or the fear of flying, is likely on the rise this summer due to safety concerns. Why is that since no major aviation accidents have recently occurred? Potential passengers are less concerned about a plane they are on crashing than they are about their physical safety being at risk from the actions of fellow passengers. Yes, unruly behavior by airline passengers has reached record highs up in the sky.

Airlines are doing the happy dance with the increased number of travelers filling their plane seats in recent months. But that business boom has been accompanied by rising concerns with more frequent unruly behavior by passengers. Are travelers really acting up that much? In a word, “YES!” In a typical year, the Federal Aviation Administration handles 100 to 150 formal cases of bad behavior by passengers. However, so far in 2021, with several months still to go before year’s end, the agency has received approximately 4,000 reports from the airlines of aggressive passenger behavior. Just a slight increase there….

What’s causing this bad behavior? Have people spent so much time in lockdown and away from social settings that they no longer know how to behave? Those in the aviation industry agree that current passengers are more frazzled than they have been in the past. On top of dealing with travel delays, cancelled flights, lost luggage, etc., travelers are facing these challenges in the context of a pandemic and economic uncertainty. Combined, these factors spell trouble for flight crews.

The consequences of the pandemic are especially difficult for some passengers. A federal mandate requires travelers wear masks in the airport and on the plane. And, given the surge in cases due to the delta variant, that mask requirement was just extended this month until January 18, 2022; it had been set to expire in September. But people: A. don’t like to be told what to do; and B. are uncomfortable wearing masks. To no one’s surprise, then, 71% of the reported incidents of unruly passengers in 2021 concern passengers refusing to comply with the mask mandate.

Results from a recent survey taken of approximately 5,000 flight attendants by the Association of Flight Attendants are disturbing. Eighty-five percent of the flight attendants reported they had dealt with an unruly passenger in 2021. Sixty percent claimed to have dealt with AT LEAST FIVE incidents this year. Of the incidents which occurred, 17% got physical. A particularly egregious case involved a Southwest Airlines flight attendant who was punched in the face by a 28 year old female passenger whom she asked to keep her seatbelt fastened. As a result of the assault, the flight attendant lost two teeth. The media, of course, found that to be a story they could really sink their teeth into and jumped on it.

Hearing about the behavior of some airline passengers would lead you to think that the stories were about kids on a school bus. But, no, these are adults acting badly, to say the least. Reported incidents include situations where they punched other passengers or crew members, threw items at people, and tried to break into the cockpit. On a May 24th flight from New York City bound for Orlando, a passenger threw his luggage at another passenger while lying in the aisle of the plane. Then, he proceeded to grab a flight attendant by her ankles and put his head up her skirt. Needless to say, that behavior did not fly with the captain who made an emergency landing in Richmond so the boisterous passenger could be removed from the plane. I’m betting that wherever the authorities took him in Virginia was not anywhere close to being the happiest place on earth.

A JetBlue flight in mid-May was also diverted for the removal of an unruly passenger. Not only was this individual refusing to wear a mask, but he was threatening another passenger and snorting what appeared to be cocaine. While airline passengers are supposed to be high, that high is being thousands of feet up in the air and not as the result of using illicit drugs while traveling. Clearly, the TSA baggage check wasn’t thorough enough on that passenger.

In a story which has to be labeled “use what you have on hand,” a Frontier Airlines flight crew resorted to restraining a passenger with duct tape while on a flight from Philadelphia to Miami. Why such a drastic measure? Well, after the passenger had groped two flight attendants and punched a third, the crew felt enough was enough. This unruly passenger is now facing three counts of battery.

What’s an airline line to do when faced with this troubling rise in bad behavior? One common sense action was to suspend in-flight alcohol service since a passenger’s being tipsy or intoxicated is just going to add fuel to the fire. American Airlines, for example, will have no such service until January 18, 2022. But resourceful travelers determined to imbibe while flying anyway have been sneaking alcohol onto planes. In a letter to airports in early August, the FAA warned them to monitor the serving of alcohol to passengers in bars and restaurants prior to their flights. Particularly mentioned was the practice of providing “to go cups.”

In addition to suspension of alcohol service, some airlines have revoked frequent flyer benefits belonging to disruptive passengers. While unruly travelers may not be terrorists, they do threaten safety on board, so no-fly lists for them have also been created. Thousands have reportedly been placed on such lists for failing to comply with the mask policy. Just like you can’t have your cake and eat it too, you can’t not wear your mask and fly too.

Those on the front lines of this problem, the flight attendants, have been attending self-defense training to prepare themselves for dealing with bad behavior from passengers. While they know what to do in case of a mechanical emergency, fending off physical assaults from travelers is a different emergency altogether.

The FAA is also addressing these incidents by recommending fines for unruly behavior. It announced on August 19th that over $1 million in fines have been proposed in response to cases this year. The agency’s policy for in-flight disruptions allows for fines as high as $52,500 and up to 20 years in prison. And, thankfully, the maximum fine was recommended for the “bright” passenger who thought it would be a good idea to try to open the cockpit door mid-flight. Unfortunately, the FAA itself cannot bring criminal charges itself against those who act out. Thus, local authorities will have to lend a helping hand to address the wild west situations occurring on board.

Having to fly is stressful enough without being concerned a fellow passenger is going to lose it and cause a scene. Disruptive behavior is irresponsible and often illegal. A word of advice from movie character Austin Powers to future flyers who may not be able to control themselves: “Oh, behave!”

WONDER-ing Woman:

Have you witnessed an incident of unruly behavior on a flight? Would the risk of encountering such behavior deter you from flying? Is restraining a disruptive passenger with duct tape ever justified?

Real Threat Gives Rise To Fake IDs

Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic is all too true. But plenty of fake news, or at least alleged fake news (depending on whom you believe), is out there. Fake news, however, isn’t the only fake thing out there right now. Fake ID’s are a hot commodity these days. These aren’t the bogus ID’s that underage teens obtain so they can purchase alcohol. Oh, no. These are fake vaccination records which have arisen due to the real pandemic.

Folks of all ages are clamoring for such ID’s. Why would anyone want a counterfeit vaccination card? For the unvaccinated, such a card may be just the ticket to attend a large event such as a music concert, to gain access to a restricted venue such as a gym or restaurant, or to be admitted to a foreign country.

According to reports, at least 675 colleges and universities are requiring their students to show proof of vaccination to be allowed on campus. Are their students complying with this requirement? Well, let’s just say that vaccination cards are being produced, but they may not be real. Faculty and students interviewed by the Associated Press expressed concern about how easy it is to obtain fake cards.

The vaccination cards which some fraudulently seek to produce or to present are pretty low-tech here in the U.S. In December 2020, federal agencies released paper cards to be used as proof of COVID-19 vaccination. These cards are 4″ by 3″ on double-sided cardstock paper bearing the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) logo in black and white; no space is provided for a photo of the person vaccinated. Thus, they are fairly easy to replicate.

Lending credence to a literal interpretation of everything being “Made in China,” is the fact that many of the fake vaccine cards originate in China. The AP reported about a Twitter user (who in this case could truly be called a “twit”) posting that his daughter bought two fake ID’s online for $50 to use at college. And where did these cards come from? China, of course. While it is concerning but not surprising that China is doing something illegal, what is surprising is that a parent would publicly post that their child committed a felony.

A felony, you say? Yes, sir. Using a fake vaccination card is a serious mistake with serious consequences. Don’t believe me? OK. Well, go read 18 U.S.C. Section 1017; that’s the provision of the U.S. Code making unauthorized use of the seal of an official government agency a federal CRIME. Conviction of that CRIME carries a possible fine and a maximum of FIVE YEARS IN PRISON. The fake vaccination cards bear the CDC logo, so people using them are clearly breaking the law.

Folks have indeed been arrested for dealing in fake vaccination cards. A California bar owner was busted in May for allegedly selling the bogus cards for $20 each. Guess his special of the day was a shot of whiskey with a fake shot record card. July saw the first federal criminal fraud prosecution involving such cards. A physician in Napa, California was alleged to have sold fake vaccination cards indicating the Moderna vaccine had been received. Guess she had the book learning to know about viruses and vaccinations but no common sense, i.e., don’t commit a crime by selling bogus medical records. Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer on August 15th called for a harder crackdown on these fake cards. So, beware if you inclined to create, buy, or use one.

Using fake vaccination cards will get you in trouble not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well. Two Americans learned this lesson the hard (and expensive) way just this month. While traveling in Canada, these “bright” (sarcasm font in use) individuals presented fake vaccination cards and got arrested for doing so. The result? They were fined $19,720 each. Not sure what they paid for those fake records, but they could’ve saved a whole bunch by simply getting a FREE vaccine and a FREE authentic card before leaving home.

Pandemic-related fraud has been rising in recent months. Requirements for proof of vaccination have created a thriving market for counterfeit cards for the unvaccinated. In March, such concern existed about the trafficking of fake vaccine cards that the FBI issued a joint statement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services saying basically “Don’t do it!” It, of course, was buying, creating, or selling bogus shot records.

In April a bipartisan group of 47 state attorneys general (the National Association of Attorneys General or NAAG) sent a letter to the CEO’s of Twitter, Shopify, and eBay to take down ads or links to sources selling fake vaccination cards. Hello? These sites have to be told that? You don’t have to have a law degree to conclude that offering fake medical records might be a bad idea generally and a crime specifically. After being nagged about this activity by NAAG, these online sites did cooperate and blacklisted certain words related to counterfeit vaccination cards. Unfortunately, such cards apparently can still be obtained on the messaging app Telegram and on the dark web. (PSA: Do NOT go to these places and attempt to make such a purchase!!!)

Customs agents are becoming busier thanks to the boom in the demand for fake vaccination cards. As of mid-August, they had seized over 121 shipments containing more than 3,000 counterfeit COVID-19 vaccine cards. These shipments were intercepted in Memphis and were bound for different cities in the U.S. Three guesses what the country of origin was for these shipments innocuously marked as being paper products or greeting cards. Ding! Ding! Ding! You’re right. It was China. Ticked off by these goings on, the Memphis Port Director remarked, “If you do not wish to receive a vaccine, that is your decision. But don’t order a counterfeit, waste my officer’s time, break the law and misrepresent yourself.”

Let’s get real. The pandemic is real; bogus vaccination records are not. Sure, it is your call whether or not to be vaccinated. But all decisions have consequences. The reality is that failure to be vaccinated may impede one’s access to events, venues, and foreign destinations. Trying to get around the vaccination requirement by procuring a fake ID is not a smart move. In fact, using such fake ID’s is a federal crime and a pain felt when receiving a quick shot. And that’s not fake news.

WONDER-ing Woman: Were you aware fake vaccination records were in such demand? Is using or producing such a card an offense justifying imprisonment for up to five years? How do you feel about legitimate online sites allowing ads for or links to illegal products? Are you surprised China is the source of the shipments of fake cards seized in Memphis?

Come Sail Away–As Long As You Have A Vaccine Passport

Want to cruise off into the sunset and leave all your cares behind? Sounds like a great idea as long as you didn’t leave a vaccine passport off your packing list and you plan to sail on Norwegian Cruise Lines out of Florida. Well, at this point anyway. The cruise line is battling it out in court with the State of Florida as to whether it can require passengers to present a vaccine passport to come aboard. To document or not to document vaccination. That is the question for a federal court.

The cruise industry’s ability to operate was an early casualty of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control has banned most cruises since March 2020. Forget bon voyage; it’s been ban voyage for almost a year and a half. Norwegian Cruise Lines (“NCL”), headquartered in Miami, was eagerly anticipating getting back into operation with a cruise on the Norwegian Gem scheduled to depart Miami on August 15th.

But who wants to launch the Titanic? With the Delta variant surging and rapidly spreading and the State of Florida a virus hotspot, NCL sought to avoid launching a cruise that might become a COVID catastrophe. Accordingly, it aimed for 100% vaccination of all guests and crew. How would that goal be accomplished though? Aha! Passengers would be required to show documented proof of vaccination against COVID-19. No show; no go.

But this plan did not sit well with Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, who has become a national figure for opposing pandemic restrictions. He felt that NCL’s requirement was discriminatory and raised privacy and personal freedom issues. In his view, having to produce a vaccine passport would force passengers to reveal private health information.

A Florida law effective July 1st basically codified an executive order DeSantis issued back in April. Under the new law, a business could be fined $5,000 each time it asked a customer to provide proof that they had been vaccinated. With a capacity of 2,394 passengers, NCL could face a fine of $11,970,000 if it asked each passenger once to produce a vaccine passport. I see a sea of red ink here for the cruise line.

Doing what any reasonable business would do when facing a burdensome legal requirement, the cruise line called its lawyers. And, to no one’s surprise, a lawsuit was filed. Yes, NCL made a federal case out of the situation–literally. A preliminary injunction was sought in federal district court to prevent the State of Florida from enforcing the new law banning businesses from requesting a vaccine passport.

NCL claimed in its court paperwork that a vaccine passport ban would jeopardize public health and unconstitutionally infringe on its rights. In particular, the cruise line claimed that the First Amendment (read “free speech” rights) were violated. The State of Florida replied basically, “Uh, uh.” (Envision vigorous head shaking.)

After a two hour hearing on Friday, Judge Kathleen Williams issued a 59-page ruling on Sunday finding in NCL’s favor. This ruling is intriguing for several reasons. First, the wheels of justice did not grind slowly; they turned at lightning speed, ~48 hours to produce a decision. Second, the ruling was issued on a Sunday. Yes, Lady Justice turned a blind eye to the calendar with an important issue for determination. Third, that’s a lengthy decision to churn out in a two day span. Fourth, the ruling only applies to NCL. Other cruises lines sailing out of Florida will have to fight their own legal battles.

The entry of a preliminary injunction went over like a lead balloon with Gov. DeSantis. He was not just going to roll over. His office issued a statement that an appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals would be forthcoming. In the meantime, passengers holding tickets for the August 15th sailing of the Norwegian Gem are sailing in a sea of uncertainty as to whether they will or will not ultimately have to produce a vaccine passport.

While it is easy to find your swimsuit and shorts to pack for a cruise, where do you locate your vaccine passport? And, by the way, what exactly is a vaccine passport? A vaccine passport is a physical or digital health credential used to confirm an individual has been vaccinated for a contagious disease to allow travel. Such a passport may be used even more broadly to allow the holder of the passport entry to a location such as a crowded concert which demands proof of vaccination. A vaccine passport could be in the form of a written certificate or a smartphone app.

Israel was the first country to issue a modern vaccine passport when it launched the Green Pass back in February. Green Pass holders are allowed access to restricted venues such as restaurants and gyms. As of May 2021, Israel, China, Bahrain, and Japan were the only countries who had issued vaccine passports to those who had been vaccinated for use in international travel and other purposes.

In the United States, New York was the first state to issue a digital vaccine passport. That state utilizes IBM’s Excelsior Pass app which displays a personalize QR code verifying vaccination status. This app was tested at a Nets basketball game and a New York Rangers hockey game in March 2021. The voluntary Excelsior Pass permits attendance at theaters, event venues, large weddings, and arenas. While the app and the pandemic remain, the New York governor is gone.

Is a national vaccine passport on the horizon? Not according to the White House which has emphatically stated it will not support a system requiring Americans to carry credentials.

While the pandemic lingers, the urge to travel grows stronger. People can only stay cooped up for so long. But traveling involves contact with others who may or may not be vaccinated. Since no end is in sight for the pandemic, a workable solution must be found to balance personal freedoms with public health. Sadly, the ultimate resolution is likely to be handed down by a court and not reached by people (vaccinated and unvaccinated) working together to find an acceptable way to move forward.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you feel comfortable engaging in international travel at this point? Is having to show a vaccine passport an infringement of your personal freedoms and right to privacy? If yes, at what point does the common good justify imposing such a requirement if at all?

Attack of the Killer Drones!–UAV’s Aren’t Just for Fun

Drones are just for hobbyists and kids, right? WRONG! They can be effective and lethal weapons too as demonstrated by an attack on a commercial ship off the coast of Oman on July 30th. So, in addition to being wary of small viruses getting you, better keep your eyes open for small UAV’s as well.

Other than being a flying object, what exactly is a drone? A drone is an unmanned (or womaned for that matter) aerial vehicle (“UAV”) which is piloted by remote control or by an onboard computer. Drones were originally developed during the 20th century for military missions. Someone had the brilliant idea that humans should not be bothered with performing missions that could be characterized by one of three “D’s,”– that is dull, dangerous, or dirty.” Let the machines do that work!

Drones are not simply for use in ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) for ground troops. Sure they can be outfitted with cameras to see what the enemy is up to. However, they may be designed for precision strike capability and outfitted with dangerous payloads such as explosives, chemicals, or biological hazards. The first military drone, the Predator, targeted Osama Bin Laden. Nevertheless, humans, in the form of Navy SEALS, were the ones to actually take the world’s most wanted man out.

Israel, a country which needs to be prepared for war at any minute, was the first country to manufacture drones. But it was a portable rotary wing attack drone produced in Turkey by STM which made big news in 2020. According to a U.N. Security Council report, an STM Kargu 2 drone loaded with explosives detected and attacked a human target in Libya. So what? Isn’t that what the drone was built to do? Yeah, but the catch was that the drone carried out the attack without command, i.e., on its own initiative. Apparently this is no dumb drone. Scary, yes. Dumb, no.

A drone attack last week resulted in two fatalities. The oil tanker Mercer Street, empty of cargo, was en route from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Fujairah, United Arab Emirates. Who would target such a vessel? Well, let’s see. It was a Liberian-flagged and Japanese owned ship managed by the London-based Zodiac Maritime, a part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. Thus, the possibilities are quite broad.

But the most likely suspect is Iran. That country is the principal user of one-way explosive drones, also known as “suicide drones.” These drones are loaded with explosives set to detonate upon impact. And, to put it mildly, Iran as been making a nuisance of itself with its nuclear deal in shreds leading to heightened tensions in the region.

The oil tanker with the bull’s eye on it was a whopping 28,400 registered gross tons, referring to the measurement of the volume of all enclosed spaces on the ship. Thus, the Mercer Street was no small target. But the thing targeting it was small, a “kamikaze drone.” As the vessel proceeded through the northern Indian Ocean off the coast of Oman beyond Omani territorial waters, it attracted small visitors. First, an unsuccessful drone attack occurred; fortunately for the oil tanker, the drone fell in the water causing no harm.

But whoever sent the drone subscribes to the philosophy “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The second attack was the charm, from the attacker’s perspective that is. A subsequently sent drone hit the vessel blasting a hole through the top of the oil tanker’s bridge where the captain and the crew command the vessel. Two people on board were killed; one was a Romanian crew member and the other was a British national serving as a security guard.

The tanker sent out a mayday call to which the U.S. Navy responded. (Uncle Sam is helpful like that.) The USS Ronald Reagan and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher escorted the damaged vessel to a safe port. Meanwhile, no one claimed responsibility for the attack. Israeli officials, however, quickly pointed the finger of blame at Iran. Coincidentally (or likely NOT), three other similar attacks on Israeli-linked ships have occurred since February.

The United States and the U.K. have joined Israel in blaming Iran for the drone attack. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement indicating the U.S. is “confident” Iran conducted the attack. His statement noted Iran is increasingly utilizing the “lethal capability” of one-way explosive drones in that region. Bolstering this conclusion is the fact pro-Iran forces have used drones to attack U.S. forces in Iraq and that Iran has trafficked drone technology to Hamas, Hezebollah, Iraqi militias, and Yemeni Houthis. Yikes! I think of arms dealing as missiles, assault weapons, and bombs, but drones clearly need to be included in the “arms” category.

Recognizing drones are a real threat, the U.S. military has taken steps to counteract use of such technology. For example, the U.S. Air Force is seeking prototypes for a microwave based anti-drone system. A research lab at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico will be building an advanced version of THOR (Tactical High-Powered Operational Responder) which uses bursts of intense radio waves to instantly disable small unmanned aircraft systems. The program is scheduled to begin this fall with a delivery of the prototype weapon in 2023. (So, hey Iran, hold off on any drone attacks until then!)

Meanwhile, back in the Middle East, ships not only need to watch their backs (isn’t that aft in nautical terms?) but look overhead for threatening drones. In the olden days, ships feared seeing a ship flying a skull and crossbones on the horizon. Today, it is small flying objects with rotary blades which prey on innocent vessels which may be appearing. Yes, lethal things are coming in small packages. Beware the killer drones!

Just WONDER-ing:

Have you ever flown a drone? Were you aware that drones could be used for military and lethal purposes? How can ships protect themselves from such objects?