A flight attendant for Southwest Airlines was left bleeding from her face and with two teeth missing on Sunday after an ‘unruly’ passenger attacked her on a flight from Sacramento to San Diego.
The passenger was reportedly ignoring the flight crew’s usual safety instructions (such as wearing her seatbelt and having her chair in the upright position) throughout the trip, but then became both verbally and physically abusive as the plane came in to land. The flight attendant, who has not been named, was later brought by paramedics to San Diego hospital to be treated for her injuries.
Sadly this is a situation that is becoming all the more common, particularly as the pandemic drags on. So far this year, the Federal Aviation Administration has reported 2,500 incidents of unruly passenger behaviour. 1,900 of these were related to passengers refusing to wear facemasks. This clearly presents a very real danger to airline staff, who until January of this year didn’t even have the legal recourse to force passengers to comply with common-sense mask policies.
Speaking after the assault on Sunday, the president of Southwest’s flight attendants union, Lyn Montgommery, issued a statement warning of an “epidemic of aggression and assault” against cabin crew. She called for greater consistency in preventing abusive passengers from boarding connecting flights and urged the government to increase the number of federal air Marshalls onboard planes.
Fortunately the FAA, in cooperation with individual airlines, is doing something about this. Since January, the Administration has implemented a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards staff abuse and has massively ratcheted up the fines issued to unruly passengers.
Last week it emerged that a passenger onboard a Delta flight from Honolulu to Seattle in December 2020 now faces a fine of $52,000 for assaulting a flight attendant. The passenger allegedly tried to enter the cockpit while the aircraft was in the air and then struck the flight attendant who tried to restrain him. After being held down and handcuffed by a group of crew and passengers, he then broke free and struck the flight attendant again, before shoving him to the ground.
Following strong condemnation from Delta, the FAA responded with a civil penalty order, which the passenger now has a month to contest. The record-breaking fine was applied retroactively since the zero-tolerance policy technically only came into effect this year.
Similarly, a passenger onboard a Southwest flight from Phoenix to Chicago last year has been hit with a $27,000 penalty after claiming he had a bomb onboard and threatening to blow up the aircraft. The flight had to be diverted to Oklahoma City and the passenger was taken into police custody.
Incidents of this nature are totally unacceptable and airlines are absolutely right to work with the FAA to implement harsher sanctions. Although mask restrictions are now loosening for some Americans who have been vaccinated, they are unlikely to disappear from transport settings – particularly international air travel – for some time. It is therefore imperative that those with the authority to do so look out for flight attendants, whose primary job is to ensure the safety of the passengers onboard. These frontline workers have put their lives at risk during a pandemic for over a year now and deserve the utmost protection that the law can offer them.