Make airlines share information about banned and abusive flyers more readily. That was one suggestion to come out a Congressional hearing this week. And stop airport bars from selling booze in to-go cups.
When flight attendant Teddy Andrews returned to work in September 2020 after recovering from a severe bout of Covid-19 in March that nearly killed him, the work environment had drastically changed. Andrews spoke Thursday before a Congressional Aviation Subcommittee holding a hearing on unruly and disruptive passengers.
That changed work environment, the rising epidemic proportions of unruly passengers putting aviation at risk is part of why Congress is looking to see what more it and federal agencies can do to help frontline workers, like the one in five flight attendants who’ve been attacked.
Since January, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) adopted a zero tolerance stance for unruly passengers, there’s been a reported 4,385 cases of disruptive behavior as of September 21, with 3,199 of them accounting for mask-related incidents.
The aviation subcommittee hearing titled “Disruption in the Skies: The Surge in Air Rage and its Effects on Workers, Airlines, and Airports” lasted nearly three hours hearing testimony from flight attendant Andrews testifying on behalf of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, representatives for airlines, airports, and unions.
For one, Delta Air Lines wants other U.S. airlines to share lists of passengers who have been banned during the COVID-19 pandemic for disruptive behavior to help deter aggressive behavior.
“We’ve also asked other airlines to share their ‘no fly’ list to further protect airline employees across the industry,” Delta said in a memo seen by Reuters. “A list of banned customers doesn’t work as well if that customer can fly with another airline.”
However, the FAA, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Justice were noticeably absent on the witness list, a move called into question by Texas Congressman Troy Nehls.
Despite more than 4,000 cases of reported unruly passenger incidents, there have only been 762 investigated to date, and only 162 have received enforcement.
An airline veteran since 1981, Andrews, a 10-year American Airlines flight attendant, testified he had lost count of how many times he has been threatened or insulted for simply doing his job.
On a routine flight after collecting garbage in the cabin, Andrews said a fellow flight attendant returned to the rear galley nearly in tears following an interaction with an abusive passenger refusing to put on his mask. Offering to help, Andrews said he instructed the passenger to don a mask.
“N*****, I don’t have to listen to a damn thing you say, this is a free country,” Andrews, who is an African-American, said the passenger repeatedly used the N-word in addressing him.
Throughout the hearing, subcommittee members expressed their horror at what Andrews endured and praised his calm throughout the incident with the unruly passenger.
In her testimony to Congress, Sara Nelson, AFA-CWA’s president, said if the staggering numbers of unruly passengers continue rising at the present rate, the result may be more incidents in 2021 than in the entire history of commercial aviation.
On Thursday, the FAA said numbers of unruly passengers had dropped nearly 50 percent for the first time since January but were still twice as high as disruptive behavior reported in 2020.
“The disruptions in the cabin and failure to comply with crew instructions are a threat to the safety of flight,” Nelson said.
Mentioning the 20th anniversary of September 11, Nelson worried flight attendants tasked with being the last line of defense are distracted by disruptive cabin behavior from focusing on abating any future coordinated attacks.
At times heated, lawmakers participating in the hearing followed up testimonies with a lengthy question-and-answer period.
For instance, in a somewhat contentious exchange, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, interrupted Christopher Bidwell, senior vice president of security for Airports Council International, asking why airports aren’t stopping concessionaires from selling alcohol in “to-go cups.”
Bidwell testified his group has been working with airline partners, federal agencies, and local enforcement to address unruly passengers but said the trade association has yet to see data indicating alcohol plays a role in unruly behavior.
But before being interrupted by DeFazio, Bidwell was citing an unseen FAA’s 6 percent figure for alcohol-related unruly passenger incidents and airports’ inability to say whether passengers are intoxicated before arriving in airports.
DeFazio, who said he’s been flying for 35 years and before the pandemic had never seen alcohol to-go cups sold in airports, insisted Bidwell answer the question of why alcohol to-go continues happening at airports. The congressman said allowing the practice induces people to break the law by carrying alcohol on board.
Bidwell responded the practice of selling to-go alcohol cups existed before the pandemic, but at a smaller scale.
Shifting the blame to airlines that are reluctant to make announcements during the boarding process, Bidwell said many airports had made signage, while other airports have worked with airlines in marking to-go cups to assist gate agents.
After hearing Andrews’ testimony, several subcommittee members, including Reps. Hank Johnson and Chuy Garcia, asked for suggestions on how best to protect flight attendants of color from workplace harassment.
A problem with enforcement that has repeatedly come into question is the lack of flight attendants willing to stay behind to file a report with law enforcement following an unruly passenger incident.
Nelson said United Airlines had put together an emotional and legal support system for flight attendants, letting them know that the airline will back them up if they report an incident.
However, Nelson cautioned that isn’t the case industrywide for short-staffed flight attendants under pressure not to delay a flight and get the next flight out on time.
Punched in the face and unable to think clearly in deciding whether to report incidents to enforcement without their airlines communicating their support ahead of time, Nelson said flight attendants are the victims.
DeFazio advised Airlines for America (A4A) to consider backing their flight attendants and enhancing pre-boarding announcements as part of recommendations the airline trade group representing major U.S. airlines would submit to the FAA’s request for additional measures to discourage disruptive behavior.
Some of the measures that came into question included the secrecy in airline no-fly lists, allowing passengers banned from one airline to fly with another where the unruly behavior may continue.
Internal no-fly lists have been a critical tool for airlines, said Lauren Breyer, A4A’s spokesperson, adding there are legal and operational challenges in sharing the lists.
Lawmakers suggested a solution to this would be an FAA database all airlines could access. Additionally, adding proper mask use information to airline safety cards and demonstrations might also help inform passengers and curb instances.
A4A said it is committed to curbing unruly behavior through enforcement and encouraged enhanced collaboration across the aviation industry.
— Reuters contributed to this report.
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Photo credit: U.S. representatives at the Capitol on Sept. 23, 2021 heard testimony from flight crews about abuse they endure on flights. Nicolas Raymond / Flickr