Fight or Flight: Unruly Passengers Have Made Flying Downright Scary

By: John Donovan  | 

policeman on airplane
An officer from the Airport District Police of Miami International Airport gestures toward a passenger to remove him from a United Airlines flight March 17, 2021. Incidents like this have increased at an exponential rate in 2021. Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

Back in the 1960s, the Chicago-based Leo Burnett Agency dreamed up an advertising slogan designed to ease unrest in an historically turbulent era. "Come fly the friendly skies of United" became an industry catchphrase, evoking images of smiling stewardesses, clean-cut pilots and a flying experience that made a trip from Chicago to Los Angeles as easy as heating up a TV dinner.

Those friendly skies, though, are now as anachronistic as that foil-wrapped Swanson dinner and that brand-new high-fidelity RCA. A post-pandemic travel surge, an industry workforce stretched to its limit, mask mandates, politics and general pent-up anger all have contributed to an unprecedented number of onboard showdowns between rowdy passengers and flight attendants.

It's beyond unfriendly up there these days. It can be downright scary.

"This is the worst unruly passenger situation that flight attendants have seen throughout their entire careers," says Taylor Garland, a representative for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents almost 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, including United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Spirit Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines. "When you put a microcosm of the U.S. population in a metal tube flying at 30,000 feet [9,144 meters], one small little problem can turn into a very big problem very quickly."

mask mandates
An executive order signed by U.S. President Joe Biden mandates mask-wearing on federal property and on public transportation, including all airplane, as part of his plan to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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Sky-high Trouble

Back in January, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administrator Steve Dickson signed a "zero tolerance" order that called for stricter penalties for passengers "who assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of a crewmember's duties." In March, the order was extended for at least as long as the federal mask mandate remains in place.

The federal mask mandate requires that most travelers in all transportation networks — including at airports, on planes and on busses — wear masks. It lasts through Sept. 13.

"The primary reason why the mask mandate is still in place is because not everyone on our planes is vaccinated. Not even everyone has access to the vaccine, right?" Garland explains. "So it's protecting every single person onboard. And, also, transportation has a responsibility to make sure we're not contributing to the spread of any [coronavirus] variants or things like that."

Dickson's zero-tolerance stance was prompted by more than 3,000 reports of disruptive passengers, just since the start of the year. The in-air incidents are disturbing:

  • In late December 2020, on a Delta flight from Honolulu to Seattle, a passenger tried to breach the cockpit, punched a flight attendant at least once and had to be physically restrained by other passengers. That passenger faces a fine of more than $52,000.
  • In February, a JetBlue flight from the Dominican Republic to New York had to return to the DR when a passenger refused to wear a mask, scuffled with flight attendants and crew members, and threw food and drank alcohol that was not served by the airline (in violation of FAA rules). That passenger faces a nearly $33,000 fine.
  • In late May, on a Southwest flight from Sacramento, California, to San Diego, a passenger in an argument with a female flight attendant over mask-wearing punched her in the face, reportedly knocking out several of her teeth. The assailant was arrested and charged with felony battery.
  • In mid-June, an off-duty flight attendant took control of the PA system and made an announcement about oxygen masks on a Delta flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta. He then had to be subdued by passengers and crew members and the flight rerouted to Oklahoma City.

The TSA has become so concerned about the incidents, it announced June 24 it was reinstating it Crew Member Self-Defense (CMSD) training in July. The program was paused because of restrictions.

The training, which is voluntary and free for all flight crew members in the United States, provides them with defensive techniques for responding to an attacker on an aircraft. Flight crew members also learn to identify and deter potential threats, and if needed, apply the self-defense techniques against attackers.

A group of airlines stakeholders, including several unions representing pilots and flight attendants, recently sent U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland a letter demanding more be done to deal with rowdy passengers, including the "full and public prosecution of onboard acts of violence." Some 465 investigations into assault or threats of assault on crewmembers are ongoing.

"It is worse than anything we've ever seen, and the FAA's numbers back that up," Garland says.

"It's out of control," Paul Hartshorn, a spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American Airlines cabin crew members, told CNBC in early June. "It's really coming to the point where we have to defend ourselves."

airline flight attendants
Flight attendants wearing protective masks walk through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Several unions, including two representing flight attendants, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding more be done to protect flight crew members from passengers.
Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Turbulent Air Still Ahead?

The reasons behind the anger and violence in the skies can be traced directly to the problems America faces on the ground. "It's people coming out of the pandemic and being at a stress level 10 over the last 15 months," Garland says. "Tensions are just really high."

In hindsight, we probably shouldn't be surprised. Instead of smiling stewardesses serving coffee and fluffing pillows on leisurely cross-country trips, you now have overworked flight attendants who are being asked — among many other critically important tasks that involve the safety of every passenger on board — to enforce a mask mandate against many people's wishes. All this on cramped airplanes filled with antsy passengers during a pandemic that has not yet ended.

Is the FAA's crackdown enough to calm things, though?

"We would say it should be permanent," Garland says of the zero-tolerance policy. "[It] is helpful, and all of the reporting on the fines and the possible consequences that you may face as a passenger if you act up is definitely serving as a deterrent for some people. Obviously, not for everyone. But it is helpful."

The FAA and others have launched public address announcements in airports throughout the country that warn of fines and possible criminal prosecutions for those who might disrupt air travel. Several airlines offer up onboard messages as well.

With the FAA's actions, and with mask mandates on the ground being relaxed throughout the country, there is some hope that things between flight attendants and passengers may finally chill out a little.

Right now, though, when it comes to flying carefree, friendly skies, that's all we have: hope.

new airline Avelo
About 1.9 million people passed through U.S. airport security checkpoints on Memorial Day, according to the TSA, and those numbers continue to climb. More than 2 million traveled through TSA checkpoints June 28.
Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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