Travel boom puts US on track for most unruly passengers ‘in history of aviation’

As the airline industry slowly recovers from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, some passengers are making the situation even more difficult.

Travelers, newly-liberated from lockdowns, are bringing both luggage and bad attitudes on their trips out of town. As of June 29, there have been over 3,000 incidents of unruly passengers on planes, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with nearly 500 investigations initiated. In comparison, there were 146 investigations in 2019, prior to the start of the pandemic.

“If we stay on that track, we’re talking about more reports this year of unruly passengers than we’ve had in the entire history of aviation,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told Yahoo Finance. 

“This is an incredibly stressful time," Nelson said. "Everyone is at a stress level 10, and it’s almost as if we have forgotten how to interact with each other. There has to be a basic level of kindness.”

An overwhelming majority of these incidents are passengers refusing to comply with face mask mandates. So far, as part of the FAA’s zero-tolerance policy, penalties have ranged from $7,500 to $15,500 in fines for these passengers for failing to follow instructions from flight attendants.

“What they’re saying is you don’t get a second chance if you’re acting out on an airplane,” Nelson said. “It’s a $35,000 fine and potential jail time if you’re going to do that.”

'Everybody is at that stress level 10'

There are several contributing factors causing this state of disarray aboard U.S. aircraft. Failure to comply with face mask mandates is one of the main drivers, along with worker shortages and lack of available aircraft.

“We don’t have all the airplanes back up in the air yet,” Nelson explained. “Most of these aircraft are full flights. Flight attendants are trained in de-escalation and one of those de-escalation tactics is actually to separate conflict, but we don’t have any room to be moving people right now. Again, everybody is at that stress level 10 and everybody needs a little help right now.”

This is because of the furloughs that took place across the airline industry back in 2020, when the U.S. economy was gutted by the pandemic. Though airlines like United (UAL) and Delta (DAL) were able to cut costs through salary reductions, they were still forced to furlough thousands of other airline employees.

“We’re seeing a ripple effect of the furloughs from October to December,” Nelson said. 

“We’re also seeing that the airlines did everything they could on a voluntary basis. They didn’t have money to offer big early outs, but they did what they could, mostly with time and not so much with money, like bridging people to eligibility, things like that. They tried to slim down the ranks as much as possible because there was so much uncertainty" with COVID-19 federal support, she added. 

When pilots are inactive for a certain period of time, they can exceed their certifications and need time to resume their training. And it’s not just pilots that need time to get back to status quo — mechanics, flight attendants, ramp service, and aircraft are in a similar situation. 

In fact the lengthy process of restarting idle planes "is very taxing on the staff. We’re just lucky that we had payroll support in place because this is a little teeny drop in the bucket compared to what it would have been if they hadn’t approved those programs,” Nelson said.

'We've got to get it under control'

Meanwhile, face mask mandates will still be in place in the air for the foreseeable future, especially as fears of new COVID-19 variants take root. Nelson and her fellow flight attendants are calling on passengers to follow safety instructions because “we’re there for your safety and security.”

By implementing fines and even banning some passengers, “we’re starting to see those consequences being reported and having an effect but it’s a much bigger problem that we have to get our arms around,” she said.

Nelson is also hoping for alcohol sales to be halted, at least for the time being, calling it a “major contributor.” There have been several incidents aboard aircraft in which alcohol was involved in an unruly passenger wreaking havoc.

One incident back in February 2021 saw a man ignoring flight attendants’ requests by refusing to wear his face mask and drinking from mini bottles of alcohol that were not provided by the airline. He was fined $15,500.

Another incident that month led to a belligerent passenger on a Cancun-bound flight being fined $10,500, sparking an emergency landing in Florida after allegedly refusing to wear her face mask properly.

"Being very clear about that prosecution and then potential ban on your ability to even take a flight is another step that’s really important right now because we have such a huge increase in these incidents and we’ve got to get it under control,” Nelson added.

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at [email protected]

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