Since the start of this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has received 4,498 reports of unruly passenger behavior, 3,274 of which (or 74 percent) having stemmed from incidents of passengers refusing to wear a mask.
The high number of in-flight altercations prompted the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure to hold a hearing this month about “the surge in air rage” and its effects on airline and airport workers.
“The amount of disruption and violent behavior on planes has reached epidemic proportions,” Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, stated at the September 23 hearing.
He added, “In one incident in May, a flight attendant lost two teeth in an altercation after a passenger repeatedly ignored instructions and then became physically confrontational. In another, a belligerent passenger tried to break down the cockpit door, was handcuffed, broke free, and then struck the flight attendant trying to subdue him a second time. Today we will hear from a flight attendant who has encountered disruptive and unruly passengers on numerous occasions and can speak to the anxiety and fear many flight attendants feel going to work each day.”
In May 2020, the major U.S. airlines all began requiring that every passenger (with a few exceptions based on age or medical conditions) wear a face mask over their nose and mouth, a requirement that is now backed by a federal transportation mask mandate implemented in January 2021 for all passengers age two and older.
In June 2020, Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the major U.S. airlines, announced that its members had agreed to start “vigorously enforcing” their mask requirements, including suspending flying privileges for passengers who didn’t comply. Subsequently, the airlines began developing internal no-fly lists of noncompliant passengers.
Last week, Delta Air Lines stated in a memo to employees that the carrier now has more than 1,600 people on its no-fly list. But the airline argues that independent no-fly lists of unruly passengers aren’t enough.
“A list of banned customers doesn’t work as well if that customer can fly with another airline,” Delta stated in the September 23 memo. Consequently, Delta has “asked other airlines to share their ‘no-fly’ list to further protect airline employees across the industry.”
Currently, there are several government-based no-fly lists that are meant to flag people who might be suspected terrorists, criminals, or infectious disease carriers. The no-fly list Delta is suggesting would be the first coordinated effort among airlines to ban passengers for bad behavior.
The call to action comes as the U.S. government works to crack down on in-flight mask offenders.
Last month, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. is doubling the fine for people who break the mask rule on planes, trains, and other forms of public transit. First-time offenders will face a potential fine of $500 to $1,000 and second-time offenders could pay $1,000 to $3,000 under the new rules. Previously, the fine had started at $250 and could go up to $1,500 for repeat offenders.
“If you break the rules, be prepared to pay,” Biden said as he announced the increase. The president also rebuked people who have been taking out their anger about the mask requirement on flight crews. “And by the way, show some respect,” he said. “The anger you see on television toward flight attendants and others doing their job is wrong. It’s ugly.”
On January 13, following a troubling rise in unrest on airplanes in the lead-up to and aftermath of the January 6 Capitol insurrection, the FAA issued an order directing stricter legal enforcement against unruly airline passengers.
“The FAA has seen a disturbing increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior. These incidents have stemmed both from passengers’ refusals to wear masks and from recent violence at the U.S. Capitol,” the agency stated in the order.
In the past, the agency addressed unruly behavior using methods ranging from warnings and counseling to civil penalties. “Effective immediately, however, the FAA will not address these cases with warnings or counseling. The agency will pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members,” the agency stated.
Passengers who physically assault or threaten to physically assault airline crew or passengers face fines of up to $35,000 and imprisonment.
And House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure chair DeFazio argued that the stiffer repercussions have worked.
The FAA last week reported that the number of unruly passenger incidents in the previous week had dropped to 50 percent of the number in early 2021. “But the rate of these incidents is still too high—it’s twice the rate of cases reported in late 2020,” added DeFazio.
He argued that more violent offenders should be criminally charged, however, noting that the U.S. Department of Justice only filed charges for 16 defendants this year, the same number that were charged last year, despite the uptick in incidents this year.
Additionally, the hope is that there can be increased cooperation between airports and local law enforcement, so that local law enforcement can be at the gate when a plane with an unruly passenger onboard arrives. Local law enforcement should also be communicating and reporting the incidents to the FBI, DeFazio stated.
Lastly, he noted that airports should work to help curb passenger alcohol consumption and intoxication. “While alcohol may not always be the primary instigator in some of these confrontations, adding gratuitous alcohol to a violent situation certainly exacerbates the problem and subsequent danger to flight crew and the traveling public,” he said.
At a time when air travel is finally beginning to rebound after coming to a near standstill in 2020 due to the pandemic the incidents of unruly in-flight behavior have complicated that recovery.
Some have tried “to pin [air rage] on the federal mask mandate, which has saved innumerable lives,” stated DeFazio. “While I am relieved that people have begun to return to the skies, we must remain vigilant in ensuring their safe travel. That includes doing what we can to clamp down on this alarming increase in belligerent behavior.”