Fed up flight attendants calling for harsher penalties amid a surge of unruly, violent passengers

A recent surge in reports of unruly passengers has created dangerous working conditions for flight attendants. Aviation workers are calling on lawmakers to enact harsher penalties on misbehaving passengers.

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Flight attendant Teddy Andrews urged Congress to pass legislation that heightens consequences for unruly passengers at Wednesday’s “Air Rage Town Hall” at O’Hare International. Andrews speaks about his experiences with unruly passengers at the Air Rage Town Hall.

Flight attendant Teddy Andrews urged Congress to pass legislation that heightens consequences for unruly passengers at Wednesday’s “Air Rage Town Hall” at O’Hare International Airport.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

American Airlines flight attendant Teddy Andrews has been on the job 40 years, but he says issues with unruly passengers have been worse than ever.

In mid-January, one of Andrews’ coworkers, another flight attendant, came to him in the back galley. While on the verge of tears, she told Andrews she needed assistance dealing with a passenger who was adamantly refusing to wear a mask. When Andrews reminded the passenger of federal mask mandate on airplanes, the passenger refused to comply and instead started hurling racial slurs at Andrews.

“He said, ‘N––, I don’t have to listen to a damn thing you say, this is a free country,” Andrews recalled during testimony to Congress last week. “I was completely taken aback. I didn’t know what to say.” ’

At Wednesday’s “Air Rage Town Hall” at O’Hare International Airport, representatives from local and national aviation worker unions discussed the increasingly unsafe working conditions and called on the federal government to enact harsher penalties for passengers who refuse to comply with FAA regulations or become violent.

“Something has got to happen,” Andrews said Wednesday. “We need some federal help, and we need it now.”

Andrews added that the mask mandate is “personal” to him. In March of 2020, he was hospitalized with COVID-19 and placed in the Intensive Care Unit, where he says he feared for his life.

Since Jan. 1, the FAA has received more than 4,400 reports of unruly passengers, which is already more than twice the amount received in 2020, airline worker unions said. Just last week, a passenger was arrested for allegedly punching a flight attendant twice in a reportedly unprovoked attack.

In addition to increased fines and jail time for misbehaving passengers, unions are calling for legislation that prevents passengers banned on one airline from flying on a different one. In most cases, a passenger banned from one airline is currently free to book their next flight with a competitor, the unions said.

A panel of flight attendants, pilots and union representatives at Wednesday’s “Air Rage Town Hall” said their job has become increasingly dangerous as reports of unruly passenger are on the rise.

A panel of flight attendants, pilots and union representatives at Wednesday’s “Air Rage Town Hall” said their job has become increasingly dangerous as reports of unruly passenger are on the rise.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“There is no excuse for this behavior, and we will work with our law enforcement and security partners to enforce this law,” Frank Grimaldi, deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Aviation.

Southwest Airlines flight attendant Corliss King said she can’t think of any other job, apart from a “prison guard,” where workers are routinely spat on and assaulted for doing their job.

“We are surrounded by 170 passengers, and we’re at the mercy of people to help us stay safe,” she said, noting that about 80% of U.S. flight attendants are women. “I don’t think people understand it’s a pandemic for us too. We’re tired too. We’re frustrated too, but we don’t go to work to be a punching bag,” said King, who is the second vice president for Southwest Airlines’ flight attendant union.

Aviation workers and pilots are also raising concerns about the security vulnerabilities created by unruly passengers. Workers added that a violent passenger can create a distraction for potential terrorists and hijackers to exploit.

King said that while her fellow aviation workers are working hard to lobby Congress, she believes real change will come when passengers start voicing the same concerns.

“It’s going take pressure from the public to say to the carriers, ‘I don’t want that person who behaved that way on my flight as a passenger’ in order for them to care.”

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