85% of flight attendants say they've dealt with unruly passengers this year
More than 85% of flight attendants who responded to a recent survey say they have encountered unruly passengers over the first seven months of 2021.
Further, nearly 20% of those who responded say they've encountered physical violence on aircraft this year, according to the results of the survey, which was run by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), a major flight attendants union.
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The survey comes amid an increase in cases of unruly passengers onboard commercial flights in the U.S. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there have been 3,615 reported incidents so far this year.
But according to the AFA, that number is likely an undercount, based on the survey results.
"More than [70%] of the flight attendants [who responded to the survey] say that when they've reported this, they have not seen follow-up from management," Sara Nelson, the AFA president, said on a conference call Thursday. "That doesn't mean the report didn't go to the FAA," she added, "but the flight attendants are not getting any follow-up."
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About 5,000 flight attendants responded to the survey, the AFA said, including some who are not members of the union. All were based in the United States.
While there are a few issues driving the increase, Nelson and others have said the cause is a combination of factors including mask noncompliance, as well as alcohol, pandemic-related stress as people begin traveling again, and passenger frustration during delays or cancelations.
Read more: FAA doles out $124,500 more in fines as it continues unruly flyer crackdown
Notably, in terms of the mask noncompliance, recent politicization of masks is not necessarily the cause, flight attendants have said. Simply adding another enforcement interaction between passengers and flight attendants is enough to heighten tensions — just as would have been the case if a now-commonplace rule, like raising seat backs and tray tables for takeoff and landing, were introduced today.
Masks are currently required to be worn on aircraft through Sept. 13, although Nelson said she thinks it's likely that the mandate will be extended.
In January, the FAA announced a zero-tolerance policy for unruly behavior aboard flights. The agency has fined passengers a total of hundreds of thousands of dollars over various incidents. The largest individual fine, $52,500, was issued against a passenger who allegedly tried to force open the cockpit door and physically assaulted a flight attendant.
Nelson on Thursday called for increased enforcement, including criminal prosecution in cases where passengers become unruly or violent (the FAA fines are considered to be civil penalties, not criminal).
"We are again imploring [the Department of Justice] to conduct criminal prosecutions," Nelson said. "This is not something that needs to change under the law; all they need to do is use the statute that already exists to prosecute."
Read more: FAA fines passenger a record $52,500 as crackdown on disruptive passengers continues
"We believe that criminal penalties are critical to making it very clear that there are severe consequences for this type of action," she added.
Although some have complained that flight attendants themselves have been escalating in-flight issues, Nelson strongly refuted that take.
"Part of the problem here is that we're in a space where if everyone doesn't comply, it does jeopardize the safety of everyone else," Nelson said. "Flight attendants are charged with enforcing the rules."
"We've been led to believe that we're in conflict with each other in this country. There are people who think that enforcing the rules is an impingement on their rights," she added. "Flight attendants have been called 'Nazis' by cable news personalities. And all of that rhetoric is adding to the conflict, and attempting to define flight attendants as being difficult, when really, they're just doing their jobs."
Read more: Don’t be a jerk on a flight; there are no more second chances this summer
Nelson added that even though "flight attendants are people too" and, that it's always possible for an individual to "lose their cool," that is not representative of what's driving the increase in unruly passengers.
Ultimately, and fortunately, despite the sharp increase in incidents, the overall number remains small compared to the more than 2 million people who fly most days.
"While this still remains a relatively small number of passengers," Nelson said," the events onboard are exponentially more than they typically are, and the atmosphere that this relatively small number of passengers is creating is incredibly hostile."