The Federal Aviation Administration is warning air travelers about what it describes as a dramatic increase in unruly or dangerous behavior aboard passenger airplanes.
In a typical year, the transportation agency sees 100 to 150 formal cases of bad passenger behavior. But since the start of this year, the agency said, the number of reported cases has jumped to 1,300, an even more remarkable number since the number of passengers remains below pre-pandemic levels.
The behavior in question includes passengers refusing to wear masks, drinking excessively and engaging in alleged physical or verbal assault, including what the agency describes as political intimidation and harassment of lawmakers.
In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for example, a fistfight broke out amid a dispute over mask-wearing. In Washington, D.C., a passenger was escorted off a flight after arguing with flight attendants over the mask rule.
In another case, a flight bound for Los Angeles was diverted to Denver and forced to make an emergency landing after a passenger allegedly tried to open an emergency exit.
In recent days, Alaska Airlines banned an Alaska state senator for refusing to comply with mask requirements, according to The Anchorage Daily News.
“It is not permissible and we will not tolerate interfering with a flight crew and the performance of their safety duties,” Stephen Dickson, the administrator of the FAA, said of the wave of incidents. “Period.”
The FAA is now taking a “zero-tolerance” approach to poor behavior: Unruly passengers face potential criminal charges, fines up to $35,000 or lifetime bans on certain airlines.
The bad behavior appears to be taking a toll. Angela Hagedorn, a former flight attendant with Alaska Airlines, tweeted that she recently resigned.
“It has been an exhausting time for all the employees who are just trying to do their job according to their company’s policies," she said. “The constant arguing and pushback from guests, it’s ridiculous."
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, said airline employees have reported a wide range of troubling incidents.
“What we have seen on our planes is flight attendants being physically assaulted, pushed, choked,” Nelson said. “We have a passenger urinate. We had a passenger spit into the mouth of a child on board.
“These are some of the things that we have been dealing with,” Nelson said, adding that the physical and verbal abuse that flight attendants have allegedly experienced this year has been “way off the charts” compared to the last 20 years.
In the months ahead, as parts of the United States begin to rebound from the pandemic and a greater number of people take to the skies, the FAA — along with the Transportation Security Administration and Air Marshals — plan to watch closely for behavior that threatens crew members or passenger safety.