TSA reinstates flight crew self-defense classes as unruly passenger behavior continues

Sep 26, 2021

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Unruly airline passengers are in the news these days.

On Thursday, two Hawaiian Airlines flights returned to the Honolulu airport due to unruly passenger incidents.

That same day, at a congressional hearing on in-flight incidents, the Federal Aviation Administration said that while rates of unruly passengers onboard commercial flights have dropped by 50% since early 2021, they are still more than double what they were at the end of 2020.

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Passengers who flout the rules can face fines and end up on airline and FAA no-fly lists, but it’s fight attendants and other crew members who must deal with the unruly passengers in real time in the air. And in a recent survey conducted by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), a major flight attendants union, 85% of flight attendants say they have dealt with unruly passengers, with close to 20% reporting that they’ve encountered physical violence on aircraft.

Some deescalating and self-defense tactics are part of regular and recurrent flight attendant training but, increasingly, flight attendants are looking for more tools to protect themselves from aggressive, out of control passengers.

One tool is the self-defense course the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been offering since at least 2015. Put on hold during the pandemic, TSA restarted the program in June and has hosted more than 50 classes around the country so far.

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

The voluntary four-hour training is offered to flight crew members free of charge and is held at 24 locations around the United States. All active flight crew members for domestic carriers are eligible to register for the training.

The Points Guy joined a class of 11 crewmembers at a Federal Air Marshal field office near Seattle, Washington, gathering at 8 am in a room with two Federal Air Marshal (FAM) instructors and several life-like mannequins used for self-defense training called BOBs – Body Opponent Bags.

Students ranged from Ashley, a flight attendant for two years who said she signed up not only to learn how to defend herself inflight, but for situations off the plane. “I want to learn more techniques so if someone attacks me on a layover or on my personal time, I know what to do.” Barbara, a 35-year flight attendant veteran, was there for much the same reason. She said her airline’s self-defense training was “not as detailed as this,” and she was there to learn more techniques as well.

Related: 85% of flight attendants say they’ve dealt with unruly passengers this year

The class started with a welcome from Robert Selby, the Supervisory Air Marshal in charge of the Seattle field office of the Federal Air Marshals. He said that while airlines offer substantive training in deescalating tense situations on board and in self-defense, “this is another version of follow-on training” that is always evolving in response to current events and other situations.

Then the class was turned over to FAM instructors Brent and Chris. They were friendly, encouraging, and approachable throughout the morning course, but very no-nonsense when it came to advice and instructions.

“You’re not going to beat someone up for not wearing a mask,” said Brent, “but in situations when your life is in danger, we are teaching you to be the aggressor. We have one rule: you win.”

From there, the class went through the paces of learning basic self-defense skills using personal weapons: fists, palms, the edges of hands, forearms, elbows, legs, feet, and knees.

Flight attendants practice self-defense techniques in a free class provided by the TSA. Photo by Harriet Baskas.

The BOBs, punching bags, and sometimes the instructors served as stand-ins for unruly passengers who were subjected to elbow strikes, hammer fists, eye gouges, clinches, foot stomps and knee strikes.

“I’m imagining doing this in my pencil skirt and heels,” one flight attendant said.

Instructors pointed out the key target areas of the body – eyes, temples, neck, torso, and extremities – as acceptable targets when someone is in fear of their life and reminded these students that they had the added challenge of performing defenses tactics in confined spaces of an airplane.

Students were also reminded to verbalize while defending themselves, yelling words such as “help,” “stop,” and “back off.”  This not only reminds you to breathe, the instructors said, but alerts passengers and other crew members to come to your assistance.

In a nod to modern-day social media, one instructor noted that because other passengers will likely be videotaping an in-flight encounter, yelling those words helps make it clear what is happening and who is the real aggressor.

After several hours of learning and practicing individual self-defense skills, the final step was putting them all together in a role-playing session on an airplane simulator. One by one, class members approached the front of the plane where an air marshal was pretending to be a drunk passenger who attacks the flight attendant. Students went into self-defense mode, attacking a large, padded mat held by another instructor while other instructors stood by yelling encouragement to use newly learned skills, such as yelling and knee kicks.

“Wow, that was different than I thought it would be. My heart is racing,” said a crewmember named Melissa, after going through that final exercise. “But I’m ready.”

All images courtesy of the author. 

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