‘It's Out of Control.' Airlines, Flight Attendants Want Stiffer Penalties for Unruly Passengers

Elijah Nouvelage | Bloomberg | Getty Images
  • The FAA has received about 3,100 reports of unruly traveler behavior this year and issued fines topping $560,000.
  • Flight attendants have pushed carriers to delay returning alcohol sales to coach cabins.
  • Lawmakers have raised alarms and at least one senator is working on a bill to address the issue.

A JetBlue Airways flight bound for New York returned to the Dominican Republic in early February after a passenger allegedly refused to wear a facemask, threw an empty alcohol bottle and food, struck the arm of one flight attendant, and grabbed the arm of another.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which detailed the incident in a report, slapped the passenger with a $32,750 fine.

Reports of verbal abuse, a failure to comply with the federal mask mandate and assault by airline passengers are on the rise. Airline industry groups, flight attendants and lawmakers want the government to do more to stop it.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday said it has received approximately 3,100 reports of unruly passenger behavior since the start of the year.

The agency said it has so far proposed fines totaling $563,800, though recent agency releases describe incidents that allegedly occurred in February, meaning there are likely more cases, and fines, yet to be disclosed.

The agency implemented a "zero tolerance" policy and threatened fines of up to $35,000 earlier this year, after a series of politically motivated incidents around the time of the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Passengers have 30 days to contest the fines.

Unruly passenger behavior or interfering with flight attendant duties is against federal law.

Flight attendant unions say their members have been insulted, shouted and demeaned by passengers, some of them intoxicated, and in some rare cases, violence.

A passenger allegedly punched a Southwest Airlines flight attendant last month. The flight attendant lost two teeth after she was struck, according to her labor union.

"It's out of control," said Paul Hartshorn, spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American Airlines' more than 20,000 cabin crew members. "It's really coming to the point where we have to defend ourselves."

Airline executives note that the cases are rare considering the number passengers they are carrying. Transportation Security Administration airport screenings recently topped 2 million a day, the highest since before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic in mid-March 2020.

But the issue adds to flight attendants' stress after a year of job insecurity and health concerns from working in a pandemic, said Sara Nelson, a prominent labor leader and international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the largest flight attendant union with some 50,000 members across more than a dozen airlines.

"Even if it doesn't rise to the level of a physical altercation, just the constant bickering and name-calling and disrespect, that wears away at people," she said.

Most of the cases are related to passengers' refusal to wear masks on board, which the Biden administration mandated earlier this year, though airlines have required it since early in the pandemic. The administration extended it through mid-September.

A passenger on a Jan. 7 Alaska Airlines flight from Washington, D.C., to Seattle allegedly pushed a flight attendant when cabin crew walked down the aisle to check whether travelers were wearing face masks, said the FAA, which fined the traveler $15,000.

There isn't one single reason behind the incidents, according to Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who has studied anger for about two decades. He said a sense of entitlement is a common thread in displays of anger, however.

"What we know is that entitlement is correlated with anger, meaning the more entitled you are the angrier you get," said Martin, the author of "Why We Get Mad: How to Use Your Anger for Positive Change."

Another factor behind disruptive behavior could be readily available examples, such as videos online, of others acting out.

"We've seen lots and lots of example of people losing their cool and having what I would call tantrums in the last year, very publicly," Martin said. "Some of that may have modeled a way of dealing with problems for people that isn't really a healthy, reasonable way to deal with problems."

Increased anxiety returning to travel might also have heightened tensions, he added, though he noted that one of the better indicators for whether someone will turn violent is that they believe in violence to solve problems in the first place.

Pleas to do more

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., plans to introduce legislation before the end of this month "that would cover abusive passenger behavior on board flights" and against TSA officers, spokesman Chip Unruh told CNBC.

On Monday, Airlines for America, which represents most large U.S. carriers, along with several industry labor unions, wrote Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to direct the Justice Department to "commit to the full and public prosecution of onboard acts of violence."

At a hearing last week, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D.-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about what the agency is doing to combat the assaults and other unruly behavior on planes and at airports.

"We also have prepared federal air marshals to address any act of violence that they themselves observe while on flights," Mayorkas said. "Importantly, we are working with law enforcement to ensure that these acts are met with the full force of federal law. These individuals who commit these heinous acts are prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

Nelson, the union leader, says a currently voluntary TSA self-defense course for flight attendants should be part of their paid, mandatory training provided by airlines.

Tactics limited

Southwest Airlines and American Airlines last month delayed plans to resume alcohol sales for much of the cabin, while United Airlines scaled its plans back to mainline flights over 800 miles. The changes came at the urging of flight attendant unions, following the attack on the Southwest crew member.

Brady Byrnes, managing director of flight service at American, told staff: "We also recognize that alcohol can contribute to atypical behavior from customers onboard and we owe it to our crew not to potentially exacerbate what can already be a new and stressful situation for our customers."

A bar at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. May 28, 2021
Leslie Josephs | CNBC
A bar at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. May 28, 2021

Both Nelson and Hartshorn, the American Airlines flight attendant union spokesman, said it's key to keep intoxicated travelers off planes. Before allowing passengers to board, some gate agents remind travelers that they can't bring their own alcohol on board

"At the gate we can handle it but at 35,000 feet that becomes a serious problem really quickly," said Hartshorn. He said some of the incidents are between passengers, forcing flight attendants to step in.

Flight attendants are trained to de-escalate arguments with passengers, unions say. Nelson, a 25-year flight attendant at United, noted that one challenge is that said flight attendants have fewer tools than usual to address disruptive passengers.

One tactic for dealing with a disruptive passenger can be moving them to another seat, but planes are flying fuller, leaving fewer options, she said. Catering services have also been limited during the pandemic, so offering passengers food or a beverage to try to calm them down is not always possible.

Clearer messaging about the rules and consequences, from airport bars to public officials would help, she said.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, a former Delta pilot, has made several media appearances to warn travelers about the consequences of bad behavior. Last week he discussed fines and potential jail time on TMZ. The FAA has also posted frequently on social media warning travelers to behave or face consequences.

One Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport based-American Airlines flight attendant told CNBC the increase in unruly passenger behavior has discouraged her from pressing passengers to wear masks if they refuse.

"If I see it get heated, I'll back away," said the flight attendant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was concerned it could jeopardize her job.

She said she hasn't experienced an unruly traveler but added, "I think it's a matter of time."

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