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!”
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?