As airline travelers return to the skies after a coronavirus-induced lull, federal officials say reports of unruly passengers are rising sharply, with thousands of people violating inflight mask mandates and some travelers physically threatening airport security staff and flight crews.
The Transportation Security Administration has tallied at least 69 physical assaults against its security staff since the pandemic’s early days in March 2020, the agency told Forbes, including one passenger who bit a pair of TSA agents in Denver earlier this month (the figures were first reported by CNN Thursday afternoon).
The TSA didn’t release pre-pandemic data, but it says violent confrontations between passengers and airport security agents have become unusually common.
Reports of midair misbehavior are also up: The Federal Aviation Administration has opened 487 investigations into unruly passengers so far this year, up from just 183 for all of 2020, after airline crews reported over 3,000 unruly travelers to the FAA.
Many of these confrontations stem from travelers refusing to wear masks: The TSA told Forbes it’s opened more than 1,700 investigations into mask compliance since the TSA imposed a universal mask mandate for travelers in February, and the FAA told CNN and ABC 2,300 of this year’s 3,000 unruly passenger reports were tied to mask-wearing.
1.96 million. That’s how many passengers have passed through the TSA’s airport security checkpoints per day over the last week, more than triple the level for this point in 2020, though screenings are still down 25% from the same week in 2019.
Air travel cratered last year, as tourists and business travelers avoided unnecessary trips during the Covid-19 pandemic, but passenger volumes have gradually rebounded amid falling U.S. coronavirus cases and rising vaccination rates. Federal officials and airline staff say a small number of these passengers have been argumentative, verbally abusive or physically threatening. The TSA and FAA have responded by promising civil and criminal penalties against unruly travelers, and in January, the FAA imposed a zero-tolerance policy, vowing to seek fines against all passengers who assault or threaten airline crews, instead of offering warnings or counseling to some offenders. Meanwhile, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines suspended alcohol service last month, and United Airlines has stopped serving alcohol on short-haul flights, amid concerns about intoxicated passengers.
“Passengers do not arrive at an airport or board a plane with the intent of becoming unruly or violent; however, what is an exciting return to travel for some may be a more difficult experience for others, which can lead to unexpected, and unacceptable, behaviors,” TSA interim leader Darby LaJoye said in a statement Thursday.
Amid this rise in unruly passengers, the TSA said Thursday it will start offering free self-defense training to flight crews next month, after pausing the classes due to Covid-19.
Airlines and labor unions called on the Department of Justice to criminally prosecute some travelers this week. In an open letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, the group said unruly people “pose a safety and security threat to our passengers and employees.”
This article originally appeared on Forbes