New Survey Shows Most Flight Attendants Have Dealt With Unruly Passengers

Kent Nishimura | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images
  • Eighty-four percent of flight attendants have dealt with unruly passengers on board, a new labor union survey shows.
  • Seventeen percent of respondents said they experienced a physical incident.
  • The FAA has received more than 3,600 complaints of unruly passengers.

Verbal attacks. Seat kicking. Throwing trash at crew.

Those are some of the incidents flight attendants have faced this year from passengers. Eighty-four percent of flight attendants have had to handle unruly passengers this year and 17% of them have experienced a physical incident, according to a labor union survey published Thursday.

The Federal Aviation Administration has received more than 3,600 reports of unruly passengers so far this year, nearly three-quarters of those involving passengers who refuse to comply with the federal mask mandate, the agency said this week. Failure to follow flight crew instructions is against the law.

Sixty percent of respondents who said they had a physical incident on board said law enforcement was requested to meet their fleet as did a third of those who noted a verbal incident, according to the survey from the Association of Flight Attendants.

"This survey confirms what we all know, the vitriol, verbal and physical abuse from a small
group of passengers is completely out of control, and is putting other passengers and flight crew at risk," union president Sara Nelson said in a statement.

She called on the FAA to make its "zero tolerance" policy permanent.

Airlines and labor unions last month asked the Justice Department to pursue criminal charges against for violent passenger behavior.

The AFA, the largest flight attendant union, said it collected responses from almost 5,000 cabin crew members across 30 airlines between June 25 and July 14.

Earlier this year, the FAA announced a zero tolerance policy for unruly passenger behavior. As of Tuesday, the agency said it has started 610 investigations and 95 enforcement actions. Flight attendants say not every case gets reported so incidents of unruly travelers could be higher than what is reported to the FAA.

Flight attendants said they believed there were several causes for the incidents, including alcohol consumption, flight disruptions along with the mask mandate and safety reminders, according to the union.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines in May put off plans to sell alcohol on board because of the surge in bad behavior on planes. That month, a Southwest flight attendant lost two teeth and suffered face injuries after she was struck by a passenger, her labor union said.

On Monday, American Airlines updated its script for captain's boarding announcements that reminds travelers to follow crew member instructions and to "remember that the consumption of personal alcohol brought onboard flights is against federal regulations and is strictly prohibited," according to a staff e-mail, which was reviewed by CNBC.

Pilots were also told to remind travelers that refusing to wear a mask could mean they can't fly or could face fines.

The Transportation Security Administration in April extended the mask mandate for air and other forms of travel until Sept. 14.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week reversed earlier guidance and said that even vaccinated people should wear masks indoors due to the rapid spread of the Covid delta variant, raising the chances that the federal government will again extend the mandate for air travel.

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