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Flight Attendants Are Seeing A Growing Number Of Unruly Passengers

Date: August 3, 2021

By David Koenig, AP

Nearly one in five flight attendants report having witnessed physical incidents involving passengers this year, sometimes violent, often over face mask rules.

As a result, their union is calling for criminal prosecution of people who act up on planes.

A union survey supports what airlines and federal officials have been saying: There has been a surge in unruly passengers this year, who sometimes become violent.

The most common trigger? Passengers refusing to follow the federal requirement that they wear face masks during flights, according to the survey by the Association of Flight Attendants.

Alcohol is the next-largest factor, with flight delays also playing a role, according to the survey.

The union said nearly 5,000 flight attendants responded to its survey, which ran from June 25 through July 14, and that 85% said they have dealt at least once this year with an unruly passenger. The union said 17% reported seeing a “physical incident,” including touching, slapping or striking a flight attendant or another passenger.

Some said they were cursed or yelled at, and some said they were followed through the airport and harassed after the flight ended, according to the union, which represents flight attendants at United, Alaska, Spirit and several smaller carriers.

Airlines have banned a few thousand people for the duration of the mask rule, and the Federal Aviation Administration has announced proposed fines against dozens of people. But Sara Nelson, the union’s president, said more passengers should face prosecution.

“When people are facing jail time for acting out on a plane, we suddenly see some sobering up, and we need some sobering up,” Nelson said.

A few cases have led to criminal charges, and crews sometimes ask police to meet the plane when it lands.

In May, a 28-year-old woman was arrested on felony charges in San Diego after a video showed a young female passenger punching a Southwest flight attendant in the face. Such cases usually are filed by local prosecutors. The FAA has no authority to pursue criminal charges.

According to the FAA, airlines have reported more than 3,600 cases of unruly passengers this year — figures weren’t kept for prior years. Nearly three-fourths involved disputes over masks. The agency has announced dozens of proposed fines, the largest one for $52,500 for a man who tried to open the cockpit door and struck a flight attendant on a Delta Air Lines flight in December.

The FAA said it is investigating 600 other cases this year — nearly double the number of investigations started in 2019 and 2020 combined.

In January, Stephen Dickson, the FAA’s administrator, announced a “zero-tolerance policy” in which passengers can face immediate enforcement action and not just face getting a warning.


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