With mask mandates gone, cases of unruly passengers are down substantially

May 8, 2022

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The end of the federal transportation mask mandate has brought with it a drop in the number of unruly passenger complaints aboard U.S. airlines.

According to data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reviewed by TPG Saturday, the week the mask mandate ended was also the first week unruly passenger complaints dropped below pre-mandate levels. Disputes over mask-wearing made up the vast majority of the record number of cases the FAA has seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the agency imposing some hefty fines.

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Airlines were no longer required to enforce mask-wearing rules on flights after a federal judge in Florida threw out the mandate on April 18, saying the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had exceeded its authority. The mandate had been around since the Biden administration took office in January 2021.

Travelers wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the spread of covid-19 wait in line to be screened by TSA at Orlando International Airport (MCO). (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

During 2021, the FAA recorded far more cases of unruly passenger behavior than any year since the agency began tracking complaints in 1995. The agency initiated 1,113 investigations and took enforcement action against 350 passengers last year alone. Prior to 2021, the agency had not seen more than 200 complaints in a year since 2005.

The vast majority of the complaints – more than 70% of all reports in 2021, in fact – centered around masks, FAA data showed.

The numbers had steadily declined over the early months of 2021, but cratered the week the mandate came off the books.

FAA data showed for every 10,000 flights the week ending April 24, there were just under two complaints of unruly passenger behavior. That’s below pre-mandate levels in late-2020.

(Photo by Erik Witsoe / EyeEm / Getty Images)

Even as passenger behavior cases have dropped, though, the feds are not letting up on the punishment for those who act out.

The FAA announced in late April, its ‘zero-tolerance’ policy for passengers who behave badly will be permanent. Under the policy, in place since January 2021, the FAA will issue fines to passengers instead of warning letters or counseling on the first offense. The agency is also working with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to revoke TSA PreCheck from unruly passengers fined by the FAA.

Related: FAA’s zero-tolerance policy is working

“Keeping our zero-tolerance policy will help us continue making progress to prevent and punish this behavior,” Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said in a statement last month.

Meanwhile, even with masks optional and complaints dropping on major U.S. airlines, what we saw in just the early months of 2022 has easily made this year the second-worst on record for unruly complaints, with 415 investigations already initiated.

Fortunately, the most recent trends suggest you’re much less likely to encounter one of these cases on your next trip.

Featured photo by hatawut Chaemchamras/EyeEm/Getty Images.

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