With Americans rushing to travel now that the end to the coronavirus pandemic is coming into view, flights are packed, ticket prices have soared, airports are bustling and tempers are flaring.
Laura Ramirez is relieved to be home in New York after what she calls a “nightmarish experience” traveling by plane from Miami this past weekend.
“I was supposed to get back on Sunday morning, and American Airlines at the Miami Airport is a mess,” Ramirez, a reporter at Yahoo News, said. “They don't have enough agents to handle the amount of people traveling, and I missed my flight even though I arrived at the airport two hours [early]. The line to see an agent was a three-hour line.”
When Ramirez finally got to speak to an agent, there were no more flights available for that day. So she rebooked for Monday, only to have that flight canceled as she arrived at the airport. She was left to book another flight at a different airport.
“The airline didn't offer anything — no hotel or food vouchers,” Ramirez said. “It was a terrible experience, and I know I wasn't the only one going through that."
Ramirez’s story has suddenly become commonplace as Americans have flocked back to an airline industry that struggled to stay afloat over the last year and a half. Flight routes that had been suspended due to inactivity are now running at full capacity. Airports that had emptied are now bustling with customers looking to take their first flight since the pandemic began. And with the return of crowded TSA checkpoints and terminals whose shops and restaurants have yet to fully reopen, frustrations among passengers, as well as some physical altercations, have become more frequent.
Just last week, American and Southwest Airlines announced they would postpone plans to resume serving alcohol on flights after an uptick in unruly and sometimes violent passenger incidents in recent weeks.
A video taken aboard a May 30 Southwest flight captured a passenger repeatedly punching a flight attendant in the head after being asked to buckle her seatbelt. The flight attendant lost two teeth in the assault, and the passenger was charged with battery.
A man onboard a June 4 flight originating in Jacksonville, Fla., was arrested after punching another passenger several times and slapping away the hand of an off-duty police officer, according to an arrest report. That man was charged with making threats, disorderly intoxication, battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest without violence.
In recent weeks, numerous other stories of combative passengers on flights and of violent encounters in airports have been reported. While incidents in the air have always been a once-in-a-while occurrence, the numbers show they are happening with more frequency.
Through May of this year, about 2,500 in-flight passenger incidents had been reported to the Federal Aviation Administration in 2021, and 394 of those were classified as “unruly,” according to Forbes. This marks a more than 100 percent increase in the number of complaints compiled over the last two years, which fell well under 200 for each full year of 2019 and 2020.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents over 45,000 flight attendants across 17 airlines, said the level of hostility toward flight attendants in the past year has been astounding.
“We have just never seen anything like this,” Nelson said during an online meeting with federal aviation officials in late May. “We’ve never seen it so bad.”
Several flight attendants declined to speak with Yahoo News for this story, citing confidentiality concerns.
The reasons for the increase in incidents vary depending on who you ask.
Nelson said airline mask rules, still in place across the industry, were one significant factor behind the statistics, but other factors include overall pandemic fatigue and travelers who often misinterpret new rules.
“We’ve all had a difficult year and a half, and let’s face it: traveling again is weird,” Sara Rathner, a travel expert at NerdWallet, told Yahoo News. “We’re not used to being in crowds, and we’re not used to spending extended amounts of time in enclosed spaces with other people. So we’re all going through an adjustment period, but eventually we’ll remember how life used to be.
“That being said, it’s never OK for anyone to take out their negative feelings on airline employees by committing assault,” she added. “Their job is to keep travelers safe and comfortable, and that means enforcing rules. Airlines are much more likely to permanently ban passengers for bad behavior, and that’s their right as a business. If you don’t like the rules, drive. But please observe the rules of the road if you do.”
Since February, about 22 people have been slapped with civil penalties following disruptive incidents related to air travel. Last month, the FAA announced it was proposing fines as high as $15,000 against five more passengers for violations that included allegedly assaulting and yelling at flight attendants.
As more airlines take a harsher approach to quell disruptive or rowdy passengers, experts believe the issues onboard will likely decrease as well.
“COVID-19 has brought out the best in some air travelers and the worst in others,” Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, told Yahoo News. “We should see a reduction in unruly behavior as both airlines and governments are taking more of a ‘zero tolerance’ stance against aggressive passengers.”
In the meantime, the crush of passengers shows no signs of slowing. Airports saw a 499 percent increase in customers in May compared with March 2020. Nearly 2 million people flew over Memorial Day weekend alone, according to a report by the Transportation Security Administration.
Delta's bookings in March were twice the level recorded in January, despite the fact that it notched a $1.2 billion loss in the first quarter of this year. American said its daily net bookings in late April reached 2019 levels without the benefit of much international or business travel. Southwest is also looking to turn things around in the next few months after losing $1 billion in the first three months of the year.
“The industry is simply recovering, albeit patchy and uneven around the world,” Darren Ellis, professor of air transport management at Cranfield University in the U.K., told Yahoo News. “Last year was so different to anything ever experienced in the aviation industry’s history that comparisons with this year are challenging to accurately make. … What really strikes me is how much of the massive global aviation industry has been impacted, and for so long.”
A May report from the U.S. Travel Association showed that in April 2021, travel spending tallied more than $73 billion and reflected a drop of “only” 24 percent below April 2019 levels. Now nearly nine in 10 American travelers have plans to travel in the next six months — a new high over the past year.
U.S. airline CEOs have begun sounding more optimistic about the future of the industry.
"We’re starting to see light at the end of this very dark tunnel," American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told investors on an earnings call on April 22.
"I’m relieved. I’m optimistic. I’m enthused. I’m grateful," Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told investors.
"My, what a difference a year makes," United CEO Scott Kirby said in a podcast last month.
But as passengers get back to booking flights, prices continue to rise. Domestic U.S. fares are up 9 percent since April 1, while international fares are up 17 percent, according to research from Bernstein published last month.
Even still, a populace that spent the better part of the last year pent up due to pandemic restrictions appears eager to return to travel. In 2022, global passenger numbers are expected to recover to 88 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels, and in 2023 they’re expected to surpass pre-COVID levels at 105 percent, according to data put together by IATA and Tourism Economics.
As for Ramirez, who returned home two days after her first missed flight, "I'm just happy to be home," she said.
Cover thumbnail photo: photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2)
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