The number of unruly passengers aboard U.S. passenger aircraft has never been higher.
“Air rage is not a new thing,” Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Spokeswoman Taylor Garland said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “It’s the worst it’s ever been for sure.”
According to the most recent FAA data, there have been 3,615 reports of unruly passengers and 610 investigations initiated so far in 2021. And a new survey of nearly 5,000 flight attendants from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA found that more than 85% had dealt with passengers like this in the first half of 2021, with 17% of respondents experiencing a physical incident.
‘It is not just masks’
The most common incidents involved a flight attendant asking a passenger to comply with the federal mask mandate or a flight attendant dealing with an inebriated passenger.
Part of the problem, Garland explained, is that mask mandates on planes are different from people’s state or locality. Currently, the federal mask mandate aboard transit is in effect through September 13, but Garland expects that to be extended due to a recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases.
“Masks are certainly a part of it,” Garland said. “It sets up a situation where flight attendants have to interact with passengers. But it is not just masks. It’s alcohol and it’s routine safety reminders. Some of the worst offenders started when a flight attendant reminded a passenger to fasten their seatbelt for landing or pull up their tray table.”
Passengers reacting poorly has involved verbal abuse, throwing trash, defiling the plane’s bathroom, kicking seats, and even shoving.
“One issue we’ve identified since the pandemic is the invention or broad usage of to-go cocktails in airports,” Garland said. “Restaurants and things like that made different plans when people were trying to maximize social distancing and so cocktails are much more easy to get and people can take them around the airport so that’s what we’re seeing.”
The return of casual air travel after more than a year grounded amid the pandemic also sometimes creates “a party atmosphere,” she added. “And that has always led to an increase in alcohol consumption.”
‘There should be consequences when you act up’
On January 13, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson instituted a zero-tolerance policy for unruly passenger incidents. Now, instead of issuing warnings or counseling, the agency will “pursue legal enforcement action” against anyone that harasses airline crew members.
“That has been extremely helpful in getting fines quicker to people who act up on board,” Garland said. “What we’re also imploring with these results is for the DOJ to take action. The DOJ has the authority to criminally prosecute some of these worst offenders and so we’re really hoping that they take these issues up because there should be consequences when you act up on board, especially in a physical nature.”
In the survey of flight attendants, 1 out of 3 respondents reported verbal incidents that led to law enforcement being requested. And 61% of respondents reported passengers using racist, sexist, and/or homophobic slurs during these unruly incidents.
“We believe that the laws are in place to prosecute the people who commit these horrible offenses on board,” Garland said. “What we’re asking the DOJ is to really take these cases up quicker and make clear to the flying public that there are going to be consequences on the ground. Justice can be slow sometimes but the issue is so severe that we’re really imploring the Department of Justice to get on it.”
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.