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Unruly Passenger Reports on U.S. Airlines Surpass 3,000

Aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport (Photo: AirlineGeeks | James Dinsdale)

Its been 15 months since the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the airline industry, but the United States’ domestic travel boom is helping carriers ramp up operations and begin their post-pandemic recovery. However, the surge came with an unexpected challenge – a shocking number of unruly passengers.

Reports of disruptive behavior on aircraft have shot up since the new year, and flight attendants are the ones on the front line dealing with rude and sometimes violent customers. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a majority of cases involve people refusing to wear a mask.

Because of this, unions and other airline groups are calling on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to handle heinous cases, and flight attendants are begging their companies to delay the resumption of alcohol service onboard.  

Disruptive Behavior Reports Surpass 3,000

The FAA tracks unruly passenger reports year over year, and so far, in 2021, the numbers are disturbing. As of June 20, the FAA has received 3,082 disruptive passenger reports and initiated 487 event investigations, which happen when the FAA believes one or more regulation violations occurred. Compared to 146 investigations in 2019 and 183 in 2020, the number of investigations just in the first half of 2021 is 33% higher than the two previous years combined. The events are daunting, and flight attendants are asking regulators to do more.

One of the actions taken in response to the uptick in events was the FAA’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which was enacted in January. The agency announced that instead of issuing warnings or counseling to unruly customers, it “will pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members.” This meant passengers could get up to $35,000 fines and jail time, but it doesn’t appear to be keeping things under control. Now, unions and other industry groups are calling on the FAA to defer heinous events to the DOJ for prosecution.

Airlines For America (A4A) CEO Nick Calio wrote, “We respectfully request that the FAA refer abhorrent cases to the Department of Justice (DOJ) so that the federal government may fully, swiftly and publicly prosecute criminal acts to the fullest extent of the law and deter this dangerous and concerning behavior.”

A4A represents several U.S. airlines, including Delta, American, United, and Southwest. The FAA responded, reminding that its “zero-tolerance” policy was still in place and explained it “will continue to work with local law enforcement and the DOJ to make it clear that unsafe and unruly behavior simply does not fly.” The DOJ has not responded.

Flight Attendants Want to Delay Alcohol Services

Unions are asking airlines to delay the resumption of alcohol service inflight, claiming it fuels the fire of already-angry customers. So far, Southwest and American have continued the suspension of alcohol in most cabins, and United has scaled its service.

American’s Managing Director of Flight Service, Brady Byrnes, said, “We also recognize that alcohol can contribute to atypical behavior from customers onboard and we owe it to our crew not to potentially exacerbate what can already be a new and stressful situation for our customers.”

Although flight attendants are trained in de-escalation, it can be agreed that intoxicated passengers should not be allowed on aircraft, and it can be difficult to manage the situation at 35,000 feet. Not to mention, these are unprecedented times with full aircraft and scaled-back inflight service, so common tactics like moving a passenger to another seat or offering food and drinks are not always possible. Unfortunately, this means cabin crews have limited resources onboard right now, so delaying alcohol service and continuing to warn passengers of the consequences for unruly behavior is essential.  

Flight Attendants Concerned for Their Safety

With several unruly passengers turning violent, it’s no surprise that some flight attendants are worried about their safety on duty. Recently, a New York-bound JetBlue Airways flight returned to the Dominican Republic after a passenger refused to wear a face mask, threw food and an empty alcohol bottle and physically attacked two flight attendants. That isn’t the only case of violence. Three weeks ago, a Southwest flight attendant lost two front teeth after a customer punched her. Meanwhile, in January, a man on an Alaska Airlines flight pushed a crew member after being asked to wear a mask. 

While there is no single reason for the erratic behavior, Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, explained that entitlement is a common factor. Martin has studied anger for two decades and attributes the level of someone’s outburst to how entitled they feel. He said, “What we know is that entitlement is correlated with anger, meaning the more entitled you are the angrier you get.”

With a federal mask mandate in place through mid-September, the disturbing trend is unlikely to slow down, and flight attendants are reportedly worried about their safety at work. In a statement to CNN, Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants said things are “out of control.” She continued, “We are hearing from flight attendants who are saying I’m concerned about going to work now. This is so pervasive in our workplace that I’m concerned about going to work — I’m actually afraid to go to work.”

While some could argue that unruly passengers are nothing new and a part of the job, a vast majority of reports involve noncompliance with the mask mandate, which is a COVID-era policy. This indicates the increase in cases is unique to the circumstance and, in a normal year, would not be something cabin crew members would have to worry about. 

Congress Getting Involved

With cases skyrocketing and many airline groups calling for action from lawmakers, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island is stepping in. In a statement to CNBC, spokesman Chip Unruh said Sen. Reed would introduce legislation by the end of the month “that would cover abusive passenger behavior on board flights.”

Furthermore, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas asked the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) what it is doing to combat the assault and unruly behavior on aircraft and at airports. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas responded, saying, “We also have prepared Federal Air Marshals to address any act of violence that they themselves observe while on flights. Importantly, we are working with law enforcement to ensure that these acts are met with the full force of federal law. These individuals who commit these heinous acts are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Hopefully, with Congress’ involvement, the delay of alcohol service and continued threats of high fines and jail time, unruly passenger reports will trend down. Though, the reality will likely be the opposite.

Taylor Rains


  • Taylor Rains

    Taylor Rains graduated from Florida Institute of Technology with a B.S. in Aviation Management in 2017. She has worked in the aviation industry for the past five years and has a specialty in safety analytics for part 121 airlines, but she has also worked for a part 135 company in Alaska. Her experience has allowed her to work in many areas of aviation, including airport operations, flight operations, security, inflight, dispatch, and maintenance. Taylor is also an avid traveler and has used her flight benefits to fly on as many airlines and aircraft types as possible. So far, her favorite flight has been aboard KLM’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

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