Airlines face ‘unruly passenger’ test as holiday travel rebounds

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
A traveler walks through O'Hare International Airport in Chicago ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, Nov. 20, 2021.

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Long-distance trips to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving may look a little easier as some pandemic restrictions have eased since last fall. Air travel, which dropped off in 2020, is set to double over last year with approximately 4.2 million travelers expected to fly over the holiday, according to AAA.

But airline attendants are bracing themselves against unprecedented passenger disruptions, largely spurred by mask mandates. The Federal Aviation Administration has opened 991 investigations related to unruly flyers so far this year – more than three times as many as in any year since 1995, the earliest data available. 

Why We Wrote This

Holiday air travel can always be a test of patience. That’s taking on new meaning this year as unprecedented unruly passenger behavior coincides with a rebound in the number of travelers.

It’s important to note that the vast majority of flyers behave. For example, during the week ending Nov. 7, for every 10,000 flights only 5.6 incidents of unruly passengers were reported. And the FAA and industry leaders have stepped up enforcement against unruly behavior.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, encourages having more patience for fellow passengers and flight crew. “Think about being a helper,” she says. “It’s very helpful when you create that spirit of kindness.” 

Long-distance trips to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving may look a little easier as some pandemic restrictions have eased since last fall. Air travel, which dropped off in 2020, is set to double over last year with approximately 4.2 million travelers expected to fly over the holiday, according to AAA.

But airline attendants are bracing themselves against unprecedented passenger disruptions, largely spurred by mask mandates. More than 85% of flight attendants surveyed reported dealing with unruly flyers by the first half of this year, according to the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). Some of those incidents – a flight attendant losing teeth from a passenger punch, another passenger arriving at his destination duct taped to his seat after assaulting three crew members – made national headlines. 

“These days I come to work anticipating disruptive behavior,” flight attendant and industry veteran Teddy Andrews told a congressional hearing this fall. “It feels like flight attendants have become the target for all kinds of frustration.”

Why We Wrote This

Holiday air travel can always be a test of patience. That’s taking on new meaning this year as unprecedented unruly passenger behavior coincides with a rebound in the number of travelers.

Those on the frontlines are working to address the problems, partly through swift action against disruptions. Travelers can also help by packing plenty of patience when visiting family this holiday season.

So how widespread are passenger disruptions? 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has counted 5,240 “unruly passenger” reports from airlines in 2021 as of Nov. 16. Nearly 3 out of 4 incidents involve masks, which are federally mandated on planes and considered an effective measure in preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

The agency began tracking these cases in late 2020, so there’s no historical dataset for comparing 2021 to previous years, according to the FAA. However, the agency has opened 991 investigations related to unruly flyers so far this year – more than three times as many as in any year since 1995, the earliest data available. 

It’s important to note that the vast majority of flyers behave. For example, during the week ending Nov. 7, for every 10,000 flights only 5.6 incidents of unruly passengers were reported.

How are the FAA and advocates addressing air rage?

The safety of flight attendants, who work to ensure a safe flight for all passengers on board, is the primary concern in these incidents, say industry leaders. In January 2021, the FAA adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy toward unruly behavior, meaning it will pursue immediate legal action against anyone who interferes with a crew member. Violators can face fines of up to $37,000 per violation, and potential jail time. The FAA has referred several dozen of the severest cases to the Department of Justice to prosecute as criminal cases. 

Unions have also weighed in, calling for measures such as crew member self-defense training and adding more Federal Air Marshals. A number of flight attendants have been enrolling in a self-defense program that the Transportation Security Administration revived this year, after a pandemic pause.

Sara Nelson, president of the AFA union, praised the FAA-DOJ partnership in a Nov. 4 statement, along with a plea for a “list of violators who will be denied the freedom of flight on all airlines” to be shared among airlines. 

What are airlines doing to curb unsafe behavior?

The union isn’t alone in calling for a centralized list of unruly passengers. Delta Air Lines stated this fall that more than 1,600 passengers have been put on its own “no fly” list. The company wants competitors to follow suit. (This is different from a federal no-fly list tied to perceived national security or terrorism risks.)

“We’ve also asked other airlines to share their ‘no fly’ list to further protect airline employees across the industry. ... A list of banned customers doesn’t work as well if that customer can fly with another airline,” reads the Delta statement, issued in September. 

To avoid alcohol-related incidents, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have suspended alcohol service temporarily. The FAA has also asked airports to remind passengers they can’t bring open containers of alcohol on flights, even if concessionaires offer customers drinks “to go.”

How can travelers contribute to more harmonious air travel?

If passengers see others act out, it’s best to notify flight attendants and not engage directly, says Laurie Garrow, president of the Airline Group of the International Federation of Operational Research Societies. Other tips for smoother travel involve planning ahead and anticipating longer lines at parking lots, check-in counters, and security. 

Overall, “just be a little patient,” says Dr. Garrow. Early-morning flights might be preferable, she adds, as delays tend to worsen later in the day.

Beyond logistics like arriving early and packing an extra mask, the AFA also stresses patience for fellow passengers and crew.

“Think about being a helper,” says Ms. Nelson by email, noting flight attendants are dealing with full planes. Given that it’s been a “small but persistent group” acting out, “it’s very helpful when you create that spirit of kindness.” 

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