Another week, another story of an unruly passenger forcing a plane to divert over concerns for passenger safety. This time it was a Delta flight from LAX to Atlanta, which was forced to land at Oklahoma City after an off-duty flight attendant started making disturbing announcements on the PA system.
Stephon Jamar Duncan, who was taken into FBI custody on Friday, told fellow travelers to prepare to pull down their oxygen masks before threatening over the intercom that he would “bring the jet down”. Instead, he was brought down when a small group of passengers and cabin crew bravely restrained him on the floor of the plane and handcuffed him with zip ties.
Scenes like this are now becoming nightly features on cable news, filling up news feeds and dominating the headlines. On Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) announced that it had recored 3,000 cases of unruly passenger behaviour in the past year - the highest figure since records began in 1955. Of these, 2,300 were related to passengers refusing to wear masks.
This epidemic is causing passengers and staff to understandably fear for their safety. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, has warned of a “constant combative attitude” from some passengers and said that flight attendants are now “afraid to go to work”.
The FAA, in cooperation with airlines, has responded strongly, implementing a zero tolerance policy on abusive behaviour and levying heavy fines. One passenger on a Delta flight from Honolulu to Seattle was fined $52,000 - the highest potential penalty - after attempting to enter the cockpit and hitting a flight attendant twice in the face. Another Southwest passenger has been banned from ever flying with the airline again after punching a flight attendant and knocking out two of her teeth.
Sadly, these events are still occurring ever more frequently. The FAA’s records for unruly behaviour indicate that potential violations of the law are currently about twenty times the regular yearly average. The pandemic might go some way in explaining this flare-up, with Dr Moe Gelbart of the Torrence Memorial Medical Center saying that the stress and anxiety of lockdowns may be causing people to act erratically. He told CBS News, “something triggered them… similar to maybe road rage”.
Alternatively the politicisation of mask-wearing (which accounts for a majority of passenger incidents) may also have a part to play. Former President Donald Trump was famously skeptical of mask mandates and mocked his then-opponent Joe Biden for wearing one to a TV debate. Since then GOP governors like South Dakota’s Kristi Noem have considered it a badge of honor not to impose mandatory mask restrictions in their states. Meanwhile anti-mask rhetoric reached an all-time low last month when Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene compared Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s requirement for masks to be worn on the House floor as similar to forcing Jews to wear gold stars during the Holocaust.
Whatever the reason behind these inflight outbursts, they are patently not acceptable and federal authorities need to do more to support airlines in dealing with unruly passengers. Lyn Montgommery, president of Southwest’s flight attendants union, has spoken of an “epidemic of aggression and assault” and called for more air marshals to be present on flights. She has also urged for greater consistency and reliability in no-fly lists, to ensure that aggressive passengers aren’t kicked off one flight only to wreak even more havoc on the next one.
The government needs to heed these warnings and listen to the demands of the people who have been at the front line throughout the pandemic. Mask mandates are unlikely to be relaxed on airplanes any time soon, so the TSA and Homeland Security need to ensure that adequate security personnel are onboard flights to deal with any troublemakers. Airports, airlines, air marshals and ground police forces also need to work together to ensure that offenders aren’t allowed to just hop onto the next flight home, where they risk putting even more people in danger. In this regard, authorities should pay close attention to the zero tolerance enacted by airlines to ensure we don’t leave one epidemic behind, only to run into a new one head first.