While the numbers of unruly passengers are small, the fines are huge and so can the damage disruptive flyers leave in their wake. As airlines continue revving up for the return to travel, they need to ensure these types of dangerous distractions don't impede bottom lines or customer satisfaction.
Since February, the Federal Aviation Administration has levied a total of $381,000 in fines and civil penalties against 21 airline passengers for unruly behavior on board planes, fining each at least $9,000. This came after the FAA in January adopted a zero-tolerance policy for unruly behavior inflight following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
But it seems to have been little deterrent, perhaps in large part because so few people actually got hit with fines.
The penalties include three passengers fined $15,000 each on Monday for misbehaving on flights in January and February, one passenger who was fined $10,500 for refusing to wear a mask, cursing at a flight attendant and delaying a flight in March and another fined $9,000 for mask noncompliance, the FAA said.
Since January, the FAA has received approximately 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, including about 1,900 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal face mask mandate, the FAA said on Monday. So far it has only fined 21 of those unruly passengers.
But this has been a problem since the beginning of the pandemic and even as vaccines go into place and the world makes steps toward returning to normal, passengers aren’t getting any less unruly.
From sneaking alcohol on the aircraft, mask noncompliance, and lewd language to bomb threats, assaults, and charging the cockpit, the stories read like a fiction novel. Except, not only is it happening in real life, but often at 30,000 feet, resulting in flight returns and diversions, and sometimes arrests. The FAA is beginning to quickly dole out the fines for grievances dating from January 2020 to the present and the forecast for unruly passengers looks unfavorable.
“Wear a mask. It’s required. Period. The freedom of flight depends on all of us following the rules and treating others with respect,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International (AFA), which represents almost 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines.
“Flight attendants are charged with the safety, health, and security of everyone in the cabin. Our instructions to the traveling public keep everyone safe. Listen up and do your part. The consequences are steep if you do not and the FAA isn’t playing around on this,” Nelson added.
The more egregious the disorderly conduct, the higher the fines and consequences. For example, last December an unruly passenger who was threatening and assaulting a flight attendant, charging the cockpit, trying to breach the cockpit door somehow managed to free himself from plastic handcuffs. He is now facing a $52,000 FAA civil penalty, the FAA said.
While the Delta flight from Honolulu, Hawaii to Seattle, Washington ended up not being diverted, police were waiting to arrest the passenger when it landed. He and other unruly passengers being fined have 30 days and several options including paying the fine, requesting a meeting with the FAA, a reduction in fines, or a hearing with an administrative judge, said FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor.
“Our regulatory authority as an aviation safety agency is to enforce rules about obeying flight attendant instructions and prohibiting interfering with flight attendants. We have had a zero-tolerance policy for unruly passengers since mid-January,” said Gregor.
More than one year into the pandemic, why are unruly passengers still a thing and fighting the mask mandates?
“Mask have been politicized throughout the Covid pandemic and because of that it has become a piece of conflict,” said Taylor Garland, AFA spokesperson.
Although airlines are seeing more people flying, people don’t take the mask mandates seriously because some parts of the country have been without mask mandates for eight months, Garland said.
Garland believes people have a shorter fuse. It’s been a hard year and people have been cooped up. A flight might be their first time out.
Case in point is an unruly passenger flying on Southwest from Oakland, California to Houston February, who refused to wear his mask because, according to him, masks would not be enforced in Texas, the FAA said. After repeated attempts by flight attendants to get him to comply, the passenger threw the mask on the floor, was met by law enforcement in Houston and is now facing a $9,000 fine.
“We are a year into the pandemic and even with a mask mandate, some passengers believe they can choose to violate federal law. This has led to several passengers being arrested and fined. I don’t think these passengers believe that they can be arrested and fined for failing to follow the flight attendants directions,” said Gary Peterson, air division director at the Transport Workers Union (TWU).
These passengers are often verbally and physically assaulting the flight attendant for enforcing the mask mandate, which isn’t any different than enforcing a federal law for passengers smoking onboard or refusing to wear their seatbelts, Peterson said.
An example of this type of behavior is a passenger who, after failing to comply with multiple flight attendants instructing her to put on a mask, threw food and an empty bottle of alcohol into the air, almost striking another JetBlue passenger traveling from the Dominican Republic to New York in February, the FAA said. She brought her own alcohol on board and was yelling obscenities at the crew — and now faces a $32,750 fine, the FAA said.
Even though the FAA numbers are high, it’s a small percentage of passengers, Garland said.
While having each airline provide flight attendants with its procedure for reporting passengers violating mask mandates is not an ideal process, it does provide flight attendants with an avenue for enforcement when a passenger refuses to comply, said Peterson.
TWU advises its flight attendants to read the situation, and if they believe they can proceed without putting themselves in harm’s way, to ask the passenger to put on their mask as required by the mask mandate, Peterson said. If that doesn’t work flight attendants are to follow the airline guidelines for reporting, he added.
“In most cases when asked the passengers comply; however, as you can see in some instances passengers refuse and leave the flight attendant no other option but to have the authorities involved,” Peterson said.
As Memorial Day weekend nears and the public returning to flying en masse, Garland reminded passengers that they should continue wearing masks that cover their mouths and noses for the duration of the flight.
“We’re encouraging the flying public to get vaccinated, wear a mask and come fly with us,” Garland said. The AFA will be joining the FAA and others in a special Fly Smart, Fly Safe town hall streaming on the FAA’s social media accounts ahead of the holiday weekend and answering Covid related traveling requirements question on Wednesday 3 p.m. EST.
For Peterson, it’s simple. Until the federal mask mandate is lifted on a commercial flight, you must wear the mask throughout the flight or choose another mode of transportation, he said.
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Photo credit: Passengers waiting to board their flights must wear a mask. United Airlines / United Airlines