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Get tough and throw the book at the worst of unruly airline passengers

Dozens of passengers accused of the worst behavior on flights now face potential federal charges. Over 5,000 unruly passengers reports, far more than ever, have been filed with the FAA this year.

A July 2, 2021, file photo shows a sign at O’Hare Airport stating face coverings are required. Most unruly passenger reports involve refusal to wear masks. The most abusive passengers could face federal prosecution.
A sign at O’Hare Airport states face coverings are required. Most unruly passenger reports involve refusal to wear masks. The most abusive passengers could face federal prosecution.
AP file photo

If you’re an airline flight attendant, the odds are high that you’re already dreading the upcoming holiday travel season — and with good reason.

Thinking about the prospect of packed flights disrupted by unruly passengers, often upset about putting on a mask, perhaps drunk and verbally abusive, maybe even angry enough to throw a punch — well, we’d be dreading the job, too.

Airline travel can be stressful in any case. Abusive and violent passengers make it even more so and endanger flight safety as well.

So we’re applauding the Federal Aviation Administration for taking a tough stand last week to hold travelers to account, referring 37 cases involving the most violent passengers to the FBI for possible criminal prosecution.

Good. Throw the book at them, as far as the law will allow.

“Let this serve both as a warning and a deterrent,” as FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson said in a joint FAA-FBI statement last week. “If you disrupt a flight, you risk not just fines from the FAA but federal criminal prosecution as well.”

Hefty fines and the zero-tolerance policy Dickson announced early this year haven’t been enough to deter the worst offenders. Unruly passenger reports have continued to skyrocket to record levels this year.

Most often, the abuse is from passengers who, behaving more stubbornly than an old mule, insist on defying the federal rule requiring face masks on flights and in airports to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Some passengers have even physically attacked flight attendants, like the young man who became so violent that the flight he was on, from New York to Orange County, California, had to be diverted to Denver.

Apparently, some folks need more than a fine. Interfering with the duties of crew members is a violation of federal law, the FAA points out.

Expect to see more cases referred to the FBI, “as appropriate,” an FAA spokesperson told us.

Flight attendants demand action

The numbers for 2021 so far are far higher than in previous years: 5,033 unruly passenger reports were made by airlines to the FAA, of which 3,642 — 72% — were related to mask-wearing. The FAA has launched 950 investigations into the worst cases and has already initiated 227 enforcement actions.

Under the FAA’s zero-tolerance policy, that means immediate fines. No more warning notices or orders to undergo counseling, common sanctions before unruly passenger reports began soaring this year.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA/AFL-CIO, the union that represents attendants for 17 airlines, says unruly passengers have gotten away with violence too often in the past.

The union wants to go a step beyond prosecution, with a central list of the worst offenders who would be banned from all airlines.

Consider some of the findings from the union’s survey of nearly 5,000 flight attendants:

  • 85% of those surveyed had dealt with unruly passengers in the first half of 2021.
  • 58% had experienced at least five incidents during that time.
  • 17%, or nearly 1 in 5 respondents, reported experiencing a physical incident.
  • 85% of incidents attendants experienced were related to mask compliance.

“Many respondents recounted aggressive incidents, including shoving, kicking seats, throwing trash at flight crew, defiling the restroom in response to crew member instructions and following flight crew through the airport to continue yelling and harassment,” AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson said in testimony to the House Subcommittee on Aviation in September.

Ground crews, too, have been attacked or threatened, Nelson said.

There’s a good chance holiday travel will surge this year. The federal requirement for face masks on flights and in airports remains in effect, as it should given the close confines of airplanes and the stubborn refusal of far too many Americans to get vaccinated.

Passengers who choose violence over complying with the law must pay a price.

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