Passengers behaving badly on jetliners is on pace to be declared, what could be called, an epidemic. Those working in aviation business believe this escalation of “unruly passenger” cases can be linked to the actual Covid pandemic. Some are questioning whether Federal authorities are doing enough to curb this growing trouble in the skies..
“It’s really exploding,” says Sara Nelson, President of the Assoc. of Flight Attendants union. Nelson says her members are hesitant about going to work. “It's not just physical threats. It's also verbal, constant verbal harassment. That is exhausting. And demoralizing,” she says.
There is tough talk coming from some in the government. But the numbers are still going up. The FAA has had in place a “zero-tolerance” policy on such incidents since early this year. The FAA Administrator, and former Delta Airlines Captain, Steve Dickson is trying to send a stern message, saying, “if I'm your captain, you don't want me distracted on the aircraft. You want me to be focused on things like dealing with weather and fuel and getting to your destination safely.”
Still, as of early July, the Federal Aviation Administration says it has received 3,271 reports of incidents on aircraft in 2021. The FAA has initiated 487 investigations. That is three times the number of investigations for all of 2019, before the pandemic.
Cellphone video has appeared on TV networks and local stations showing flying fists and profound profanity. One of the most disturbing cases involved a Southwest Airlines Flight Attendant who was smacked in the mouth, knocking out two teeth.
IT'S A FEDERAL LAW
Interfering with a member of a flight crew is a violation of Federal law. The FAA points out that the law states, "no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew-member in the performance of the crew-member's duties aboard an aircraft being operated."
But until recently, the FAA would dispose of these cases-possibly with a civil fine but more likely a warning notice or counseling. No more. The FAA says now, “we are not addressing cases with warning notices or counseling.” The agency also highlighted that it has now levied $119,000 in fines and released details of new cases. How many unruly passengers have actually faced Federal prosecution, or even state of local court dates in recent years? I asked the Department of Justice, several times, for statistics. None were provided.
IT'S THE MASKS
Why the spike in nasty incidents on aircraft? Even the FAA administrator mentions one reason-the mask mandate. While such mandates have been lifted in cities, counties, and states around the country-masks are still required in airports and on aircraft. In fact, according to the FAA three quarters of all incidents reported since January were mask related.
Nelson, the flight attendant union leader, believes it is part of the mix messaging the country has been hearing the past several years. “They have been told they can't trust anyone in authority, they've been given conflicting information. And they have spent a year isolated and away from other people,” she told me, adding, “They’re suddenly jammed together with other people when they have been separated from everyone else for the entire year.” She aims some of her criticism directly at Capitol Hill. “Senators who are out there saying that we should remove the mask mandate, are only adding to the problem,” she says. Nelson also believes that the absence of business and international flyers has filled aircraft with inexperienced passengers who may not know the “rules of the road.”
DEMAND TO DOJ
While the FAA has gotten tough recently with proposed fines, the airlines and their union want more prosecutions. While an incident in a commercial jetliner is a violation of Federal law (the reason I asked the Justice Department for statistics). The airline industry wants action. In a letter to the U.S. Attorney General airlines and union groups call on DOJ to send “a strong and consistent message through criminal enforcement.” Sara Nelson says laws don’t need to be changed, just enforced. “These reports are significant enough that DOJ can more actively investigate this and take this seriously,” she says.
All involved hope this is a messaging problem and not some cultural shift. The FAA has resorted to tweeting out memes to get its message out, along with the tough talk.
“I have no interest in taking people to jail, we would like to take them to Corpus Christi, and Fort Lauderdale or New Orleans,” says Nelson. She believes the some of the actions are starting to work, “But we've got to do a lot more really fast, to make sure that people are not getting hurt.”