‘It is uncontrolled.’ Airways and flight attendants are demanding harder penalties for unruly passengers

Flight attendants wearing protective masks walk through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia on Wednesday, April 7, 2021.

Elijah Nouvelage | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A JetBlue Airways flight to New York returned to the Dominican Republic in early February after a passenger allegedly refused to wear a face mask, threw an empty alcohol bottle and food, hit one flight attendant’s arm and grabbed another’s arm.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which detailed the incident in a report, fined the passenger $ 32,750.

Reports of verbal abuse, non-compliance with the federal mask mandate and attacks by passengers are increasing. Airline corporations, flight attendants and lawmakers want the government to do more to stop this.

According to its own information, the Federal Aviation Administration has received around 3,000 reports of unruly passenger behavior from airlines since the beginning of the year. The agency introduced a “zero tolerance” policy earlier this year and threatened fines of up to $ 35,000 after a series of politically motivated incidents on flights and airports around the time of the U.S. Capitol’s May 6 uprising. January had taken place around. Passengers have 30 days to contest fines.

The FAA has recommended civil sanctions of over $ 360,000 so far, according to the aviation industry, although the agency’s latest releases describe incidents that allegedly occurred as early as February, which means there is likely to be more cases and fines to be disclosed.

Cabin crew unions say their members have received insults and shouts from passengers, some of them drunk, and in some rare cases violence.

That was the case on a Southwest Airlines flight last month after a passenger allegedly hit a flight attendant who, according to her union, lost two teeth.

“It’s gotten out of hand,” said Paul Hartshorn, spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American Airlines’ more than 20,000 flight attendants. “It really gets to the point where we have to defend ourselves.”

Airline executives note that given the number of passengers they carry, the cases are rare. The Transportation Security Administration’s airport controls recently topped 2 million a day, the highest since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic in mid-March 2020.

But the problem adds to the stress of flight attendants after a year of job insecurity and health concerns from working in a pandemic, said Sara Nelson, a prominent union leader and international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the largest flight attendants union with around 50,000 members in more than a dozen airlines.

“Even if there isn’t a physical altercation, just the constant bickering and verbal abuse and disrespect that wears people down,” she said.

Most of the cases are related to passengers ‘refusal to wear masks on board, ordered by the Biden government earlier this year, despite airlines’ requests to do so since the pandemic began. The administration extended it until mid-September.

A passenger on an Alaska Airlines January 7 flight from Washington, DC, to Seattle reportedly bumped into a flight attendant as cabin crew walked down the aisle to check whether travelers were wearing face masks, the FAA said, which fined the traveler of $ 15,000.

There is no single reason for the incidents, according to Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who has studied anger for about two decades. He said a sense of legitimacy is a common thread in outbursts of anger.

“What we do know is that entitlement correlates with anger. That is, the more you claim, the angrier you get, ”said Martin, author of Why We Get Mad: How to Use Your Anger for Positive Change.

Another factor in disruptive behavior could be readily available examples online of others acting.

“We have seen many, many examples of people losing their temper over the past year and what I would call tantrums, very publicly,” said Martin. “Some of these may have modeled a way of dealing with problems for people that is not really a healthy, sensible way of dealing with problems.”

Heightened fear of traveling again could also have increased tensions, he added, though he noted that one of the better indicators of whether someone is becoming violent is that they believe in violence in order to solve problems in the first place.

Ask for more

Senator Jack Reed, DR.I., plans to enact laws “covering abusive passenger behavior on board flights” and against TSA officials before the end of this month, spokesman Chip Unruh told CNBC.

On Monday, Airlines for America, which represents most of the major US airlines, and several industrial unions wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to instruct the Department of Justice to “commit to the full and public prosecution of acts of violence on board.”

At a hearing last week, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D.-Miss., Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, Homeland Security Minister Alejandro Mayorkas asked what the agency is doing to combat the attacks and other unruly behavior on airplanes and at airports.

“We have also prepared federal air posts to respond to any acts of violence that they themselves observe on flights,” Mayorkas said. “It is important that we work with law enforcement agencies to ensure that these acts are followed to the fullest extent of federal law. Those who commit these heinous acts will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. “

Nelson, the union leader, says a currently voluntary TSA self-defense course for flight attendants should be part of their paid, compulsory training offered by airlines.

Limited tactics

Southwest Airlines and American Airlines last month delayed plans to resume alcohol sales for much of the cabin, while United Airlines scaled back plans to mainline flights over 800 miles. The changes came at the urging of the flight attendant unions following the attack on the Southwest crew member.

Brady Byrnes, American Managing Director of Flight Service, told staff, “We also recognize that alcohol can contribute to atypical behavior by customers on board, and we owe it to our crew who may not be appropriate for our already new and stressful situation to aggravate customers. “

A bar at Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport. May 28, 2021

Leslie Josephs | CNBC

Both Nelson and Hartshorn, spokesman for American Airlines’ flight attendants union, said it was important to keep drunk travelers off planes. Some gate agents remind travelers that they are not allowed to take their own alcohol on board before allowing travelers on flights.

“We can handle it at the gate, but at 35,000 feet it becomes a serious problem very quickly,” said Hartshorn. He said some of the incidents happen between passengers, forcing flight attendants to intervene.

Flight attendants are being trained to de-escalate disputes with passengers, unions say. Nelson, a 25-year-old flight attendant at United, noted that one challenge is that flight attendants have fewer than usual tools to respond to disruptive passengers.

One tactic for dealing with disruptive passengers can be to move them to another seat, but the planes fly fuller and leave fewer options, she said. Catering was also limited during the pandemic, so it is not always possible to offer passengers food or a drink to calm them down.

Clearer messages about the rules and consequences, from airport bars to officials, would help, she said.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, a former Delta pilot, has made several media appearances warning travelers of the consequences of bad behavior. Last week he spoke on TMZ about fines and possible prison terms. The FAA has also frequently posted on social media warning travelers to behave or face consequences.

An American Airlines flight attendant based at Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport told CNBC that the increase in unruly passenger behavior has deterred her from urging passengers to wear masks if they refuse.

“If I see that it is getting hot, I will withdraw,” said the flight attendant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared it could jeopardize her job.

She said she hadn’t seen a recalcitrant traveler but added, “I think it’s a matter of when.”

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