Skift Take

Flight attendants feeling the brunt of unruly passengers are not feeling protected. If airlines don't want to lose these valuable workers, lose revenue and potentially set travel's recovery back with canceled flights, more must be done by the government to ensure their safety.

One in five flight attendants so far this year has been involved in physical altercations with unruly passengers and 85 percent of cabin crew members have dealt with disruptive passengers this year as more are returning to travel, a survey released by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) revealed on Thursday. 

The online survey of 5,000 flight attendants across 30 airlines found more than half have experienced at least five incidents with unruly passengers, with flight attendants reporting incidents of swearing, yelling, aggressive behaviors, racial and homophobic slurs, and physical assaults.   

Unwilling to accept this new normal, the AFA is calling on the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Justice to make the ‘zero tolerance’ policy permanent.

“This survey confirms what we all know, the vitriol, verbal and physical abuse from a small group of passengers is completely out of control, and is putting other passengers and flight crew at risk. This is not just about masks as some have attempted to claim. There is a lot more going on here and the solutions require a series of actions in coordination across aviation,” said Sara Nelson, President of AFA-CWA.

In response to the rise of disruptive passengers, the Federal Aviation Administration in January enacted new security measures for airlines by issuing a temporary “zero tolerance” policy, making bad behavior an enforceable federal offense and extending it at the end of March.

But union officials representing 50,000 flight attendants across 17 airlines, feel it’s not enough. The AFA said existing measures in place are failing to address the problem and wants the FAA and DOJ to protect passengers and crew from verbally, physically abusive, and disruptive travelers. 

One survey respondent reported being on the ground at the back of the aircraft without the other crew members noticing until after the attacker had deplaned. 

“We tell them (passengers) that it is a federal offense to not comply with crew member instructions, use foul and/or threatening language onboard, and then the plane is met by airline supervisors or airport law enforcement and the passenger gets a slap on the wrist and sent on their way,” wrote one flight attendant in the survey.  

The flight attendant who said she’s been threatened, yelled, and cursed at countless times in the last year and has only seen at most a temporary suspension of travel for the passenger. 

“We need real consequences if flight attendants are ever going to feel safe at work again,” the unnamed flight attendant said. 

For airline frontline workers, the incessant rise of bad behavior inflight is taking a toll with many flight attendants feeling unheard and unprotected.

Survey data found 71 percent of flight attendants who filed incident reports with their management didn’t receive a follow-up and a majority didn’t observe efforts by the airlines to address issues with unruly passengers. 

“It is time to make the FAA ‘zero tolerance’ policy permanent, the Department of Justice to utilize existing statute to conduct criminal prosecution, and implement a series of actions proposed by our union to keep problems on the ground and respond effectively in the event of incidents,” Nelson said. 

Flight attendants cite multiple factors contributing to disruptive incidents and point to mask compliance, flight delays, routine safety reminders, alcohol, and cancelations as common factors when dealing with unruly passengers, an AFA spokesperson said.  

To date, the FAA has received 3,615 unruly passenger complaints, more than half of them mask-related incidents. The agency has initiated 610 investigations and 95 enforcement cases, said the FAA’s website. 

Additionally, many flight attendants reported facing extensive verbal abuse from visibly drunk passengers, being subjected to yelling and swearing for federal mask mandate directions. Survey respondents also reported being aggressively challenged by unruly passengers in other ways including kicking seats, shoving, being thrown thrash at and passengers defiling a restroom in defiance of instructions, it said.  

The FAA has been enforcing some cases and issuing historic fines for unruly passengers.  

AFA said its union has fought discrimination and prejudice for decades, and won’t allow this moment to set it back. 

“Aviation is about bringing people together, not tearing us apart,” it said. 

Airlines joined unions asking the U.S. Attorney General to prosecute unruly passengers in June. 


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Tags: airlines, association of flight attendants, coronavirus recovery, doj, faa, unruly passengers

Photo credit: Passengers and flight attendant on an aircraft. StockSnap / Pixabay

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