Francesca Street, CNN
Working as a flight attendant previously afforded Mitra Amirzadeh the freedom to explore the world — taking her from her home in Florida to destinations including Kenya, France and Spain.
As the pandemic spread, the perks of Amirzadeh’s job diminished. Now restricted to domestic US flights, her work involves navigating not only the fear of catching Covid-19, but also the recent uptick in disruptive passengers.
“I’m dealing with a lot of babysitting, which I never counted on doing,” Amirzadeh, who works for a low-cost US airline, tells CNN Travel. “The actual children on board behave better than the grown adults do.”
This summer, unruly passenger behavior seems to have reached new heights. In one incident, a passenger punched a Southwest flight attendant and knocked out two of their teeth. Video also circulated of a passenger getting taped to their seat after they reportedly punched and groped Frontier Airlines flight crew.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it has issued more than $1 million in fines to unruly airline passengers so far in 2021.
US flight attendants tell CNN Travel say the stress of the situation is taking its toll.
Susannah Carr, who works for a major US airline, says unruly incidents used to be “the exception, not the rule.” Now they’re “frequent.”
“I come in expecting to get push back. I come in expecting to have a passenger that could potentially get violent,” she says.
Amirzadeh says flight attendants across US airlines are just “over it.”
Allie Malis, a flight attendant for American Airlines, says air crew are “exhausted — physically and emotionally.”
“We’ve gone through worrying about our health and safety, worrying about our jobs — now [we are] worrying about our safety in a different way.”
The rise of air rage
Pre-pandemic, the issue of unruly passengers was becoming increasingly omnipresent — data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) suggested incidents rose from 2012 to 2015, while whole conferences were dedicated to the problem.
This increase was often linked to cabins getting fuller, with increased security checks and processes adding to tension.
In 2019, Malis, who is also the government affairs representative at the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, a union representing American Airlines air crew, spoke to CNN Travel about the decrease of personal seat space. She said her union believed it is “strongly correlated and in a large part to blame” for the rise in incidents.
Alcohol is also an often cited contributing factor — travelers drink at the airport and board the plane without crew realizing how inebriated they are. When it all kicks off at 30,000 feet, it’s too late.
That said, it has always been hard to get an exact handle on whether passengers have actually become more unruly. Not every airline that’s part of IATA submits data, and not every airline records every instance of unruly behavior, while separate FAA data recorded oscillating numbers of investigated incidents between 1995 and 2019.
There have been suggestions that incidents just started to feel more ubiquitous in recent years because social media means videos of badly behaved passengers spread like wildfire.
But while FAA data might show fluctuating figures for much of the past 20 years, in 2021, incidents seem to have skyrocketed. In 2019, 146 investigations were initiated by the FAA. So far in 2021 that number is 727.
Covid-19 seems to have exacerbated an already existing issue to an unprecedented degree, at least in the US.
Amirzadeh recalls the silent flights of spring 2020. People were too fearful to even look at other passengers or air crew, she says, let alone cause conflict.
By summer 2020, travel had recommenced and reports of in-flight disruptions were back. Masks — not yet mandated by the FAA, but enforced by some airlines — were becoming a sore topic among some travelers.
In recent months, unruly behavior has reached new heights.
“It just seems like every next incident is getting a little bit more extreme, things you just would have never imagined last year,” says Malis.
“As a flight attendant, it’s really hard to imagine yourself being in a position that requires duct taping a passenger to their seats for the safety of everyone else on the plane, yet this is something that has happened numerous times in the last few months.”
Malis says she feels like incidents have been on a steady rise since the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. It also involved disruptive behavior on planes and led to the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) International — which represents American flight attendants at 17 airlines — stating rioters should not be allowed on flights home.
“I think the insurrection was kind of an eye-opening experience,” Malis says. “What do you do when you have multiple incidents happening on the plane at the same time with only four crew members?”
A survey by the AFA released in July of this year found that, of the 5,000 flight attendants surveyed, 85% said they’d dealt with unruly passengers in 2021.
Disruptive passengers had used sexist, racist and/or homophobic language, according to 61%, while 17% said they’d been victim of a physical attack this year.
“I thought I had seen or done or heard at all,” says Amirzadeh, who has flown for six years and previously worked in customer service.
“But as I’ve learned the past 18 months, that is definitely not the case, I am seeing, hearing and doing things I never thought in my life I would ever be doing.”
Flying during Covid-19
Many incidents are linked with mask non-compliance, which the flight attendants who spoke to CNN Travel say has been an issue throughout the pandemic.
Even though it’s now FAA-mandated and federal law, the wearing of masks remain the cause of the majority of inflight issues. In a press release dated August 19, the FAA says it had received approximately 3,889 reports of unruly behavior by passengers since January 1. Of those reports, 2,867 were passengers refusing to comply with the mask mandate.
“In the beginning, I would sympathize and say, ‘Hey, you know, I get it, it’s hot, I’m hot. I’m wearing it too — I need you to wear it too. Can we please work together?'” says Amirzadeh.
“But here we are, it’s been a year and a half, you’re wearing them everywhere. And we’re not the only ones that are asking you to wear them — every train station, every bus, every airline…”
Carr says she thinks the problem is that mask-wearing is sometimes viewed as a political issue in the United States.
“The mask issue was less about public health and it was more politicized in the beginning. And that is something we’re still dealing with today,” she says.
Amirzadeh says fraught mask-related interactions often come as a result of passengers removing their face covering to eat or drink, and then keeping it off. It’s one of the reasons she thinks alcohol shouldn’t be served on planes currently.
Carr agrees and also questions the availability of to-go drinks at the airport.
Still, not serving alcohol can be the cause of issues too — as Malis has found on board American Airlines, which continues to ban alcohol in its main cabins on board most flights.
“On some of my flights it’s caused people to get upset, because they do want to feel like they have a right to have a drink — but at the same time […] if you’re getting so upset because you can’t have a drink right now, that’s the exact reason we’re kind of afraid to give you one, that kind of erratic behavior,” says Malis.
For some passengers, travel may feel more stressful and anxiety-inducing in the age of Covid. Carr suggests this — and the stresses we’ve all been under during the pandemic — are a contributing factor to the rise in incidents.
“We’ve been isolated for the last 18-plus months,” she says. “So I think some of the social graces have kind of been put on the back burner, as far as what’s acceptable in public and on an airplane.”
Malis wants passengers to realize that the stresses and anxieties they might be feeling about traveling in the age of Covid-19 are also shared by many crew, even if they seem like “a very accessible punching bag.”
“We’ve been putting ourselves on the front line, and quarantining from our families,” she says. “We’re doing our job, we’re not the reason your flight got canceled, we’re not the reason you’re frustrated.”
The ubiquity of events on social media also leads Malis to suggest there could be a “copycat factor.”
To reverse this, Amirzadeh says it’s important for people to realize that the passengers who’ve gone viral are paying the price.
Dealing with incidents
Flight attendants are safety professionals trained in dealing with everything from a medical emergency to a potential terrorist incident.
“We’re not here to serve you a Coke, we’re here to save your life,” is how Amirzadeh puts it.
But there’s the concern, she says, that dealing with unruly passengers could prevent crew from dealing with other issues on board.
“We are the people that are going to give you CPR, we’re the people that are going to give you the Heimlich maneuver, we are the people that are going to put out the fire. But we might miss those things if we’re too busy arguing with someone else about putting their mask on.”
Malis says dealing with unruly passengers is a team effort — if a passenger seems to have taken against a particular flight attendant, another crew member stepping in could calm them down.
Carr says she keeps tabs on mask-wearing from the moment travelers step onto the plane, and will first offer a friendly reminder.
If someone continues not to comply, there are several warning steps culminating in the traveler getting handed a card stating that if they continue, they’ll be reported to the airline and could lose travel privileges.
As Amirzadeh points out, a flight attendant can’t force someone to wear a mask.
“But I can let him know that if he doesn’t, then I hope that wherever we’re landing is his final destination, because his return ticket’s going to be canceled, we’re going to file a report with the FAA, and you could face fines, and other legal ramifications.”
Flight attendants are also able to take self defense classes organized via the Transportation Security Administration.
“I think more and more flight attendants need to start taking some self defense classes and need to be prepared to protect themselves and that’s a sad thing,” says Amirzadeh.
On January 13, 2021, the FAA signed an order directing a stricter legal enforcement policy against unruly airline passengers, promising a zero-tolerance campaign.
Any passenger who “assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members” could face fines of up to $35,000 and prison time.
The agency has also asked US airports to ensure law enforcement on the ground deals with reported inflight incidents, as well as consider issues associated with to-go alcohol.
The AFA flight attendant union is pressing for the zero tolerance policy to become permanent.
“It’s also important that the Department of Justice is prosecuting some of these events,” says Carr. “These unruly passenger events have been so egregious, flight attendants have been attacked, and injured […] in situations like that, it’s important that they’re facing criminal prosecution and that’s something that needs to be publicized as well.”
Malis also suggests there should be further coordination between airlines to ensure passengers banned from one airline can’t board other US carriers.
Carr and Amirzadeh are both members of the AFA flight attendant union, while Malis is involved in the American Airlines’ union.
They say flight attendants have been sharing stories with their unions and their private networks — across carriers — providing support and solidarity.
The AFA union is offering employee assistance via therapy sessions.
“There are certainly flight attendants that definitely need a break physically, mentally, and emotionally. But right now, the staffing is not there to support any type of voluntary leave option,” says Malis.
State of the travel industry
After a difficult year of furlough and redundancies, flight attendants are concerned that the dual effect of Covid-19 and unruly passengers could see aviation grind to a halt again.
Carr says one of the joys of her job has always been supporting passengers on their travels — whether they’re heading on a long-dreamed-of vacation, traveling under difficult circumstances or anything in between.
“I love this industry and my coworkers and having the traveling public back is wonderful,” she says. “But the pandemic is far from over. That is a reality. Covid-19 and the variants are still taking lives.”
The last thing Carr and her colleagues want to see is travel stalling again.
“We are doing everything we can to keep passengers safe on board and keep travel going, but without the support of the traveling public — without people taking those necessary steps to mitigate the spread, and help get a handle on this pandemic — we could be facing travel closing again, which would be horrible.”
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