Air rage crisis: Congress gets an earful on unruly flyer incidents aboard US flights

Sep 23, 2021

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Rates of unruly passengers aboard commercial flights have dropped by 50% since early 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration said on Thursday ahead of a congressional hearing on in-flight incidents.

However, rates are still more than double what they were at the end of 2020, the FAA added.

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While the overall number of incidents is low — just six occurrences for every 10,000 flights as of last week, the FAA said — they’re still occurring at a significantly higher rate than in the past.

And flight attendants, given the nature of their flight schedules, have seen a disproportionate number of the incidents. About 85% of flight attendants in a recent survey said they had encountered disruptive passenger behavior on flights in 2021, while nearly 1 in 5 said they had either seen or had been subject to violence.

Also on Thursday, the House subcommittee on Aviation held a hearing with flight attendants and representatives from airline and airport groups to discuss the ongoing air rage saga.

Teddy Andrews, a Charlotte-based flight attendant at American Airlines, talked about problems he’s encountered this year.

Related: FAA reaches $1 million benchmark in fines issued to unruly passengers

“At this point, I have lost count of the times I have been insulted or threatened on a flight simply for doing my job,” he testified.

Andrews, who is Black, described his interaction with a passenger who refused to wear his face mask.

“He looked at me, and here I will not repeat the vile epithet he used. He said, ‘N-word, I don’t have to listen to a damn thing you say, this is a free country.’ I was completely taken aback,” Andrews said. “I didn’t know what to say. Then he continued, ‘You heard me, N-word boy.'”

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, the union representing flight attendants at United, Spirit and other airlines, called for the federal government to criminally prosecute unruly passengers, rather than just issuing fines.

“While the FAA has levied more than one million dollars in fines, the Department of Justice has been slow to conduct criminal investigations or seek indictments,” Nelson said, praising the FAA’s zero-tolerance policy, which has been in place since January.

The cause of air rage is multifaceted, Nelson said.

“When asked what they believed to be the cause or escalating reasons for the unruly behavior, flight attendants cited that mask compliance, alcohol, routine safety reminders, flight delays and cancellations were all common factors in unruly passenger interactions,” Nelson said. “Many cited multiple factors contributed to incidents, which also implies a compounding effect and an opportunity to reduce incidents when better addressing any of the contributing factors.”

In addition to criminal prosecutions, Nelson called on airport bars and restaurants to reduce alcohol sales — in particular, to stop selling “to-go” drinks.

Read more: Reminder: You can’t drink your own booze on an airplane

Alcohol, however, is not a major contributor to the in-flight fighting, argued Christopher Bidwell, senior vice president of safety at the Airports Council International — North America.

“Much has been discussed in the press about the role of alcohol in the behavior of unruly passengers, but we have yet to see any data on the number of incidents that involve alcohol,” Bidwell said. “Bartenders who work in airport restaurants and bars must be certified and trained by local alcohol licensing authorities. Commensurate with the oversight of local restaurants and bars with liquor licenses, airport concessionaires are subject to the same licensing, oversight, and inspection requirements in order to maintain a license to serve alcohol.”

As for what can be done to combat the ongoing issue, Nelson said that in addition to prosecuting offenders and limiting alcohol consumption at airports, constant, simple messaging to passengers would help.

Related: FAA fines passenger a record $52,500 as crackdown on disruptive passengers continues

“We need all of aviation to help enforce and reinforce the rules,” Nelson added. “This should include electronic messaging during and after booking, signage on airport access roads and transit, communications and acknowledgments embedded in the check-in process, clear and consistent signage, video and audio throughout parking areas and terminals, and with the active assistance of all personnel, including sky caps, airport greeters, the ticket counter, TSA, airport vendors, and restaurant workers, gate agents and flight crews.”

Featured photo by Angus Mordant/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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