‘Dangerous, unacceptable, and it’s got to stop’: Airlines deal with record rise in passenger bad behaviour

·8 min read
A man watches as a Delta Air Lines plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport on July 12, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)
A man watches as a Delta Air Lines plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport on July 12, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)

The idea of jetting off somewhere on vacation, or to be reunited with family again when Covid-19 eased, was a hope that many clung to to get through the darkest depths of the pandemic.

But now, in the increasingly vaccinated United States, something appears to be very wrong with air travel as increasing numbers of passengers take to the skies again.

For unruly behaviour by passengers in the US has reached an unprecedented level in 2021.

Across the country, the Federal Aviation Administration says that there have been more than 2,900 incidents so far this year, the latest of which saw an Americans Airlines flight attendant describe dealing with passengers as being a “living hell”.

Indeed, in a TikTok video, the member of American Airlines cabin crew was filmed scolding passengers on a flight from Los Angeles to Charlotte that was delayed due to bad weather.

”We get insulted and mistreated by passengers for things that we cannot control. It is disgusting,” he said. “Shame on the passengers who have made this flight a living hell for the flight attendants”.

Unions say that the shocking figure for unruly behaviour is around 20 times what they would normally expect to see in a whole year.

And around 2,200 of those incidents were sparked by the passenger’s refusal to wear a mask, mandated for air travel, officials say.

This behaviour has prompted the FAA to announce fines for those who refuse to wear face masks – the heftiest of these coming in at $15,500 for a passenger who was asked to wear a mask more than 10 times during a flight from Florida to Las Vegas, NBC News reported.

The fines come following a decision by some airlines, including American and Delta, to stop serving alcohol on flights, in order to prevent situations from becoming hostile. Both American and Delta stooped serving alcohol in economy during 2020 - and, Insider reported, they have not yet brought back in-flight drinks service over fears of an increase in bad behaviour from passengers.

The Transportation Security Administration, which runs security checkpoints at all US airports, says that it has also seen 60 officers assaulted during the pandemic.

“We’ve never before seen aggression and violence on our planes like we have in the past five months the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International President, Sara Nelson, told The Independent.

Her union represents 50,000 cabin crew across 17 airlines and she describes the poor behaviour that her members have experienced as “horrific”.

“Already, reports of these incidents in less than five months are more than 20 times the amount in a typical year,” she added.

“But these are just the incidents reported. The constant combative attitude over wearing masks is exhausting and sometimes horrific for the people who have been on the frontlines of this pandemic for over a year.

“The atmosphere is so bad it’s causing flight attendants to quit the job they used to love. “

And she blamed much of the violence her members have faced on the politicisation of mask wearing during the Trump administration.

“Masks were politicised, and violence was stoked. We are bearing the brunt of this every day at work, including serious injury. It’s dangerous, unacceptable, and it’s got to stop,” she said.

“Flight attendants are charged with the safety, health, and security of everyone in the cabin.

“Our instructions to the traveling public keep everyone safe. Everyone wants to have the freedom of flight. Listen up and do your part. We’re truly all in this together.”

The situation appears to have declined quickly since the FAA announced in May that there had been 2,500 incidents, with around 1,900 involving masks.

The agency says that between 2010 and 2020 it dealt with reports of just 1,548 misbehaving passengers.

Just last month a Southwest Airlines flight attendant suffered facial injuries and lost two teeth after being violently attacked by a passenger.

Vyvianna Quinonez, 28, has been charged with felony battery for the attack, which took place on a flight between Sacramento and San Diego.

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The flight attendant was not identified and she was taken to hospital by paramedics before being released.

And on Friday, a Delta flight was forced to divert after a fight broke out on a flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta.

Crew and passengers helped detain an unruly off-duty flight attendant who took control of the public address system and the flight landed in Oklahoma City for the individual to be removed, hospitalised and then detained by the FBI.

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Earlier this month another Delta flight from Los Angels to Nashville was forced to divert to New Mexico after a passenger tried to break into the cockpit.

Theses incidents come as the daily volume of people traveling hit 2 million people on Friday for the first time since the pandemic began.

A video posted on Twitter by a passenger on a flight to Nashville shows attendants and passengers holding down a man who reportedly attempted to break into the cockpit (Twitter/Jessica Robertson)
A video posted on Twitter by a passenger on a flight to Nashville shows attendants and passengers holding down a man who reportedly attempted to break into the cockpit (Twitter/Jessica Robertson)

Masks may be triggering three-quarters of all incidents but the need to wear them on flights as a health protocol is not going away anytime soon.

The federal mask requirement is staying in place until at least 14 September, and the FAA has a zero-tolerance policy for passenger disturbances while the mandate remains.

“Typically, what flight attendants will do, when we see a conflict arise on the plane, we’re trained to deescalate. We look for our helpers,” added Ms Nelson.

But she said that Covid-19 had disrupted the normal mix of passengers they see on flights, with most business passengers grounded and using video conferencing.

“It’s very difficult when you don’t have people on the plane who are regularly flying, who sort of know the programme, who are our typical people that we’d go to, at least, create peer pressure but also help to try to calm down these incidents,” she said.

Jennifer Yeh, a licensed psychotherapist with Seattle Anxiety Specialists, explained that “grief, loss and the shear amount of time” the pandemic has taken may explain some passengers being in “fight” mode rather than “flight or freeze”.

“What you see with this kind of prolonged trauma and prolonged anxiety and uncertainty is that people can be more vigilant or even hyper-vigilant, sort of on the lookout for threats,” she told The Independent.

“In terms of the aggressiveness happening, you are probably seeing fight response, where people are revved up, the stress hormone cortisol is flowing, adrenaline is flowing, the idea that it can feel much better to feel anger than to feel grief as well.

“There is of course going to be huge consequences to the anger and the acting out, but it doesn’t feel good to be sad, it doesn’t feel good to be anxious, there is something stimulating about anger, you feel like you are ‘doing something.’”

And she also said that the wearing of face masks had a role to play in escalating the brain’s response in stressful situations.

“When you cover up the face, what does that do in terms of how we can read each other, the way in which we can regulate each other through smiles and facial responses.

“I think that can absolutely be regulating and we are absolutely missing that with the facial coverings. Honestly, people are not used to people as much any more, not completely broadly, but a lot of us are more awkward or anxious about social interaction.”

She said that people need to concentrate on coping skills to overcome the stress they are feeling.

“Things like flying were already hard for a lot of people and the coping skills that we used to have for it, like even things like emotional support animals are not universally allowed before, or deep breathing exercises,” she said.

“All the ways that gave us a little bit more space to take care of ourselves and one another, have a little bit been chipped away and we do need to fight for those things and we need to prioritise those things.”

Maryam Kia-Keating, a professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that a return traveling may have been a difficult re-adjustment for many.

“There are brand new, post-Covid stressors related to travel, including having no choice but to be in close proximity to strangers after physical distancing, and wearing masks in a crowded environment for an extended period of time with no breaks,” she explained to The Independent.

“ During this time period, heightened anxiety about germs and health, stress related to travel, summer heat, and multiple demands of traveling, may be piling up.

“In some cases, these compounding factors strain people’s capacity to regulate their emotions.”

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And she said that the stress is also felt by those working in the airline industry as well as passengers.

“Flight and airport staff are also experiencing higher demands and increased stress as they navigate Covid restrictions, and try to enforce rules across larger numbers of passengers, “ she said.

“An important step for airlines is to make sure to provide adequate training for de-escalating frustrated passengers, while maintaining your own calm.

“ In addition, providing passengers with clear expectations ahead of time can help them prepare in advance for challenging situations that are likely to arise.”

And she has advice for travellers aimed at reducing the stress they feel in airports and on planes.

She says that looking after your physiological and safety needs “might include simple steps such as bringing snacks, extra masks, hand sanitiser, and warm layers with you in your carry-on, so that you can reduce frustration, limit interactions, and have the items that you need to have a fun, and safe flight”.

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