A disturbing trend has emerged in the U.S. with the restart of air travel: Unruly passenger incidents have skyrocketed. A growing number of angry travelers are directing their ire at flight attendants, who say they have been facing an unprecedented number of verbal and physical assaults.
“Our flight attendants are being verbally abused—it’s safe to say on every flight,” says Paul Hartshorn, Jr., communications chair for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union for American Airlines cabin crew. “[They’re] physically abused in numbers we’ve never seen in the airline industry.” American Airlines flight attendants filed 1,500 passenger disturbance reports in April alone, the most recent month with full data available, according to Hartshorn. “It’s so out of control, it’s almost unbelievable,” he says.
But it’s not just onboard American. Reports of aggressive and often violent passengers are surging on all U.S. airlines: Between January and May of this year, there have been 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Skirmishes over mask mandates—which the TSA has in place until at least September 13—are at the center of many of the incidents. But cabin crew say there’s another trigger, too: Alcohol.
“More times than not, it is exacerbated by the use of alcohol in the terminal or sneaking it on board,” Hartshorn says. “So those go hand in hand.” In fact, alcohol has become such a flashpoint in the altercations that flight attendants’ unions have pushed to delay the return of serving in-flight alcoholic beverages, which went on pause during the height of the pandemic.
American Airlines has suspended the return of alcohol service in coach class through at least September 13, when the mask rule is set to lift; Southwest Airlines has done the same, but indefinitely. “The decision to delay the alcohol until masks are no longer required was a flight attendant union move,” Hartshorn says. “American didn’t want to do that, that was APFA.”
Likewise, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a larger union for cabin crew on several airlines, has pushed for temporary alcohol bans. “We’ve said this before, but introducing alcohol to this mix creates even more problems. In addition to having the mask off longer to consume alcoholic beverages, it’s a fact that alcohol reduces inhibitions and impairs judgement and creates a toxic environment for Flight Attendants already struggling with mask compliance,” said a letter United’s flight attendants’ union sent to the airline’s management in March. United did delay the return of alcohol for a while; it began offering some imbibements in coach class in June, though service is limited to wine, beer, and hard seltzer on most routes over two hours. Delta brought back the service in its main cabin in April, and Alaska Airlines did so in May.
With incidents still escalating, AFA’s president Sara Nelson again pushed for a wider ban on in-flight alcohol consumption earlier this month. “The incidents of violence on planes is out of control and alcohol is often a contributor,” Nelson said in a statement, according to the Washington Post. “The federal government should provide guidance to airlines and airports on pausing alcohol sales for a period of time. We should do everything in our power to remove contributors to the problem.”
While taking alcohol out of the equation might be a quick fix, some say the issues are more deep-seated. “I know going back many many years alcohol has been considered a high trigger for unruly passenger behavior,” says aviation expert Christine Negroni. “But I don’t know if you can put all the blame on alcohol.” Regulators and air carriers both need to do more for their cabin crew, who “are the voice of ‘no’ now more than ever,” according to Negroni. “The flight attendants are the person right there in the middle. I think in many cases they are not supported by their airline.”
Federal officials are taking some additional steps to try to tamp down the issue. The Federal Aviation Administration has announced a “zero tolerance policy” against any interference with flight crews, as well as a handful of lofty civil fines—as high as $32,750—against passengers who committed some of the more egregious infractions.
None of it seems to be deterring pugnacious passengers, and crews organizations are asking for more drastic steps, such as criminal charges for passengers. “The federal government should send a strong and consistent message through criminal enforcement that compliance with federal law and upholding aviation safety are of paramount importance,” said a letter that several pilot and flight attendant unions, as well as the lobbying group Airlines for America, sent to the Department of Justice on Monday.
“If you go back and Google how many zero tolerance policies there have been for disruptive behavior, you will see there have been many of them,” says Negroni, noting that larger shifts are needed in the industry to truly solve the problem. “Take a look at what’s happened to air travel over the last 20 years, the seats have gotten smaller, there’s competition to get the seats, competition to get on the airplane—it’s all created a much more intense environment in what is already a stressful situation for most people.”
There will also soon be additional training for cabin crew. This week, the TSA announced it would restart an optional self-defense training class for flight crews in July, citing the rise in unruly behavior. The class is run by federal air marshals, who share “their specialized expertise in defending against and deescalating an attack while in an aircraft environment,” said a statement from the agency.
Training, however, might not be enough either. “Every year in our FAA-required training, we have modules where we deal with disruptive behavior,” Hartshorn says. “Never on this level though. It’s really dangerous.”
As for a permanent ban on alcohol? Flight attendant unions say it hopefully doesn’t come to that. “Once [the mask mandate] goes away, we’re hoping the level of kindness we have for each other returns,” Hartshorn says. “If we see our flight attendants and our passengers still in danger, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Regardless of whether alcohol remains available to economy fliers, many believe it’s time for larger shifts in the industry to address fliers’ bad behavior. “If putting all your attention on making people aware they can be arrested isn’t working, at what point do you say, ‘Well maybe we should try something else?’” says Negroni. “Now is the time to try something else. We’re in a period worldwide of great transition. Maybe now is the time to try and do it differently.”
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