At last week’s congressional subcommittee hearing about the escalation of air rage in the United States, flight attendants and other industry representatives painted a stark picture of how unfriendly the skies have become during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Frontline aviation workers have to deal with everything from vulgar language, including racial epithets, to punching, kicking, biting, shoving and spitting from passengers,” Rick Larsen, Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation, said in his opening remarks at the hearing titled “Disruption in the Skies: The Surge in Air Rage and its Effects on Workers, Airlines, and Airports.”
Unruly passenger behavior is not a new phenomenon, but it has spiked over the past year. From 2015 to 2020, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had initiated a total of 786 investigations into unruly passenger behavior. “However, through the first nine months of 2021, FAA has initiated 789 investigations,” said Larsen.
Still, that’s only a fraction of the 4,385 unruly passenger complaints filed by airlines since the beginning of the calendar year, including 3,199 mask-related complaints.
According to a recent survey of flight attendants, over 85% had dealt with unruly passengers in the first half of 2021. “These numbers are staggering and if they continue at this rate may result in more incidents in 2021 than the entire history of commercial aviation,” testified Sara Nelson, the president of a union representing cabin crew workers from 17 airlines.
Nelson testified that flight cabin crews were routinely encountering “extensive verbal abuse, including from visibly drunk passengers, passengers yelling and swearing in response to masking directions, and often aggressively challenging flight crew working to ensure compliance with federal rules.”
Six in 10 flight attendants report being subjected to racist, sexist and/or homophobic slurs during incidents. “Many specific examples were provided, most of which were too offensive to repeat,” said Nelson.
“Air rage has reached unprecedented levels,” echoed Teddy Andrews, a longtime American Airlines flight attendant based in Charlotte, North Carolina, who was testifying on behalf of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. “Disrespect, threats, verbal abuse, and even physical assault directed at flight crew have sadly become all too common.”
“At this point, I have lost count of the times I have been insulted or threatened on a flight simply for doing my job,” said Andrews, recounting one specific incident involving a passenger who refused to wear a face mask. “As I approached him, I asked politely, ‘Sir, would you please put your mask back on? It needs to be covering both your mouth and nose.’”
“He said, ‘N*****, I don’t have to listen to a damn thing you say, this is a free country.’ I was completely taken aback. I didn’t know what to say,” said Andrews. “Then he continued, ‘You heard me, N***** boy.’” While Andrews was eventually able to convince the passenger to wear his mask, he said the racial attack “made me question my career choice.”
One of the biggest take-aways from the hearing last Thursday is that flight crews do not think major stakeholders — airlines, the FAA, airport operators and law enforcement — are doing all they can to curb air rage. Here are some of their top recommendations:
Establish a federal “no-fly” list for disruptive passengers
Each airline has its own no-fly list of banned passengers. Two of the largest carriers, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, have collectively banned over 2,600 travelers due to issues related to unruly behavior. But traditionally, airlines have always kept their “no fly” lists for internal use only, meaning that a passenger who is banned on one airline could simply fly on another. But that may soon change, as Delta Air Lines is asking other airlines to share their no-fly lists so that disruptive passengers who are banned by one would be banned by all.
FAA investigations into unruly passengers more than tripled between 2019 and 2020 and then more than tripled again between last year and year-to-date 2021. “While that is a large increase, the frequency of these incidents remains relatively low at one investigation initiated for every 563,000 passengers enplaned,” testified Lauren Beyer, Vice President for Security and Facilitation for Airlines for America, a trade group representing major North American airlines.
Still, flight attendants say too few incidents are ever investigated, according to airline workers. “Seventy-one percent of flight attendants who filed incident reports with airline management received no follow-up,” Nelson said, who told of aggressive incidents, “including shoving, kicking seats, throwing trash at flight crew, defiling the restroom in response to crewmember instructions, and following flight crew through the airport to continue yelling and harassment.”
Be more consistent about levying and enforcing fines
Both Nelson and Andrews recommended that the FAA could be tougher when meting out punishment. Nelson called for “consistent applications of fines, and some immediate consequence, not just the remote threat of a distant and unlikely consequence.”
As of last month, the FAA had proposed more than $1 million in civil penalties against 154 airline passengers for unruly behavior. Those cases represent only the 4% worst offenders.
Moreover, it’s unclear how many offenders actually pay their fines, since the agency’s regulations provide many ways for passengers to stall the slow and cumbersome path to justice. Accused passengers can, for example, provide information to contest whether the incident occurred; meet with the FAA to discuss the case; request a hearing with an administrative law judge; and they can appeal the case.
“If a passenger requests a hearing, the FAA does not issue an order and the case proceeds through litigation. In those cases, a judge’s decision or the appellate decision are the final order,” said the FAA in an email. Lastly, a passenger can simply provide documentation showing they are financially unable to pay the fine.
Criminally prosecute offenders where appropriate
“Seventeen percent, or nearly one in five flight attendants, reported experiencing a physical incident,” testified Nelson, but only 60 percent those said law enforcement was requested to meet their flight. Flight attendants want authorities to “clarify what triggers pilot reporting and law enforcement response.”
Among the most egregious incidents of unruly passengers: Last December, a Delta Air Lines passenger tried to open the cockpit door mid-flight and struck a flight attendant in the face before being restrained by crew members and a fellow passenger. On an Alaska Airlines flight in March, a Colorado man who refused to wear a face mask swatted at a flight attendant, then stood up and urinated in his seat area. In May, a Southwest Airlines passenger punched out a flight attendant’s teeth after being told to keep her seat belt fastened.
In June 2021, Airlines 4 America sent letters to the FAA and the DOJ, requesting that federal law enforcement prosecute violators to the fullest extent of the law, including jail time where warranted.
Consequently, to date, only a small number of incidents involving disruptive or violent passengers have been prosecuted. “In an article published earlier this month, [Department of Justice] said it had only filed charges in federal district courts for 16 defendants, matching the total number of unruly passengers federally charged the previous year,” noted Peter DeFazio, Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “Given the discrepancy in cases between last year and this year, that is not satisfactory or commensurate with the serious number of cases.”
The FBI has jurisdiction over cases involving a physical or sexual assault while the aircraft is in flight but passengers are rarely detained at the airport, testified Christopher Bidwell, Senior Vice President of Security at Airports Council International, the trade association representing the airport operators in the United States and Canada. “Most of the time, FBI requests airport law enforcement to gather information and forward the reports, so the agency can follow up.”
Make alcohol less accessible to passengers
“Alcohol continues to be a major driver of passenger noncompliance with safety rules and is an aggravating factor in many incidents with unruly, verbally and physically abusive travelers,” testified Nelson.
FAA regulations specifically prohibit the consumption of alcohol aboard an aircraft that is not served by the airline, but some passengers bring their own private stash of booze on the plane anyway — often in mini travel-size bottles that comply with the Transportation Security Administration’s 3-1-1 liquids rule.
An additional step airlines could take is to stop selling alcohol on flights. Of the largest six U.S. airlines, only Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have such a policy in place for passengers flying coach. Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways still offer beer and wine to all passengers.
Discontinue to-go alcohol and shots in airports
“There is no reason that a passenger should be able to leave a restaurant with a ‘to-go’ cup of alcohol and board a plane with it,” said DeFazio. “One thing that needs to happen, and to happen today, is that airports must compel their concessionaires to sell alcohol responsibly.”
“We have yet to see any data on the number of incidents that involve alcohol,” testified Christopher Bidwell, Senior Vice President of Security at Airports Council International, the trade association representing the airport operators in the United States and Canada. Some airports are making an effort, said Bidwell, by using signage or marking cups to assist airline gate agents in identifying those that contain alcohol.
But Nelson came armed with a damning photo collage of signs from various in-terminal airport bars. “In airports across the country, from Phoenix to St. Louis to New York, travelers are met with calls to order alcohol delivery to your gate and ‘cocktails to go,’” she said. One ad from John F. Kennedy airport urges passengers to “enjoy one now and another at your gate!”
Monitor passengers through the airport prior to boarding
Many times, disruptive passengers reveal themselves before ever getting on the plane. “Nearly half of the incidents could be prevented by identifying problems on the ground or pre-flight, which is an opportunity for dramatically reducing the threat in the air,” testified Nelson. “Our ground service members have seen that incidents of assault against passenger service agents are rarely investigated or prosecuted.” Nelson detailed three incidents where ground service personnel were physically assaulted but neither local nor federal law enforcement pursued charges against the perpetrators.
“By failing to follow the law and seek justice for the victims of assaults like these,” said Nelson, “a message is being clearly communicated that the safety of airport workers is not a priority.”