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Passenger aggression persists as airlines feel the holiday pinch

Shocking incidents of passenger ‘air rage’ continue to be a problem for the aviation industry, despite talks of a no-fly list and airlines professing a ‘zero tolerance’ policy.

Reports of passenger aggression, verbal and physical abuse have been one of the most unsavory patterns to emerge in the airline industry since it started moving again out of the pandemic. The past month alone has seen airline staff hospitalized, cases referred to federal prosecutors, and over $250,000 handed out in fines to just ten individuals.

One of these fines was the $23,000 issued to an American Airlines passenger who verbally abused and attacked a flight attendant because her seat would not recline. Apparently the assailant resisted any attempts to move or placate her, refused to wear a mask and eventually had to be arrested upon the plane’s arrival.

An appalling incident in itself, but sadly by no means isolated. Headlines across the country this week were grabbed by reports of a Southwest employee being hospitalized by an incensed passenger with the plane still on the runway of Dallas’ Love Field Airport. Thankfully the employee is said to be recovering well, whilst the alleged attacker has been charged with aggravated assault.

These are just two examples that made the press recently of what has been a nasty trend of aviation in 2021. The Federal Airline Association (FAA) has reported 5,114 incidents of unruly behavior from passengers between January and October of this year, over 100 of which entailed some form of physical assault.

The International Air Transport Association (Iata) have said these figures represent a twofold increase on the rate of incidence from last year. The association also conducted a survey amongst airlines in which one company reported a 55% increase in unruly passenger incidents per travellers carried.

These alarming statistics beg the question, why is this is suddenly such a recurring problem? Whilst there is no single cause to be identified, there does seem to be a recurring factor, which is the impact of the pandemic on aviation.

Cases of aggression on flights and in airports spiked after the TSA introduced a mask-wearing mandate from February 1st, which has since been extended until January next year. It is the view of Tim Colehan, a director at Iata, that this is major source of tension aboard flights and the numbers back him up: 73% of the 5000+ airport/plane disputes were reportedly related to non-compliance with the mask mandate.

Colehan identifies mandatory mask wearing, and its association with the pandemic, as a deeply personal issues and differences of opinion on the topic can easily frustrate and upset passengers.

“Because of the pandemic and the public health implications, not wearing a mask makes it much more personal and has caused confrontation between passengers”, said the director for Government and industry affairs at Iata.

Some airlines, including United, thought the spike in aggression might have something to do with alcohol sales on board their flights, and suspended the sale of hard liquor onboard.

However, data from the FAA only recorded 6% of incidents involving alcohol, and United have now resumed selling liquor on flights with little change to the rate of incidents.

Zero-tolerance policies and industry chatter about a flying ‘black list’ do appear to be effective deterrents, to an extent. The idea of a centralized, collaborative no fly list between airlines was suggested by Delta Airlines in September and seems, hopefully, to be gathering steam: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg earlier this month that a federal no-fly list “should be on the table” for violent airplane passengers.

Something decisive and effective like this is just what the industry needs, as it groans under the pressure of the holiday season and the hangover from pandemic travel restrictions. Unfortunately, this cocktail is precisely what makes it difficult to stay vigilant and proactive to the threat of unruly passengers, and the trend all the more debilitating to the industry.

Lots of staff were furloughed or laid off during the pandemic, and may have moved to other industries, leaving a dearth of experienced workers behind in aviation. Pilot and flight attendant unions such as attest to this, as do the ‘fatigue pull’ numbers for pilots at Southwest (638 cases over the monthly average).

Richard Johnsen, chief of staff to the international president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, clearly sees the pressing need to protect airline staff at this sensitive moment and argues that the onus is on the government to take measures to prevent further passenger violence.

"The rising violence at airports shows that we must finally increase penalties for unruly passengers that assault airline workers, to include federal felony prosecution and ‘no-fly list’ status for passengers that break the law,"

Johnsen has the right of it: measures taken by individual airlines, such as stopping the sale of liquor, do not provide a clear enough deterrent for these horrible confrontations. The Transportation Secretary and the Department of Justice must ensure these aggressive, sometimes violent, passengers are prosecuted, both for the sake of justice and to send a message. It should not be the responsibility of an already stretched aviation industry, going into the festive period, to defend themselves.

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