A national survey of flight attendants by the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) found that over 85% of all respondents had dealt with unruly passengers as air travel volumes picked up in the first half of 2021. 58% said they had experienced at least five incidents this year, while 17% reported experiencing a physical incident during the period. Nearly 5,000 responses from flight attendants across 30 airlines were collected from 25 June, 2021 through 14 July, 2021 via an online survey.
As a result the AFA is calling on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Justice (DOJ) to protect passengers and crew from disruptive, and verbally and physically abusive travellers, a the survey data confirmed that existing measures were failing to address the problem. 71% of flight attendants who filed incident reports with airline management said they received no follow-up, and a majority did not observe efforts to address the rise in unruly passengers by their employers.
“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.
“It is time to make the FAA ‘zero tolerance’ policy permanent, the DOJ to utilise 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,” she added.
“This is not a ‘new normal’ we are willing to accept,” Nelson continued. “We know the government, airlines, airports, and all stakeholders can take actions together to keep us safe and flying friendly. We will be sharing survey findings with FAA, DOT, TSA and the FBI to help more fully identify the problems and our union’s proposed actions to affect positive change.”
AFA says the survey provides further documentation of an “unprecedented rise” in verbally abusive and physically violent passenger misconduct documented by the FAA. The FAA’s most recent public reporting included 3,615 incident reports and a record number of enforcement actions to enforce aviation safety rules. In March 2021, FAA administor Steve Dickson extended the FAA ‘zero tolerance’ policy for passenger misconduct, and the FAA has since run a public campaign to communicate the consequences of violations.
It is a violation of federal law to interfere or disrupt the duties of a crewmember. Federal Aviation Regulations 91.11, 121.580 and 135.120 state that “no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.”
When asked what they believed to be the cause or escalating reasons for the unruly behaviour, flight attendants cited that mask compliance, alcohol, routine safety reminders, flight delays and cancellations were all common factors in unruly passenger interactions. Many cited multiple factors contributed to incidents.
Flight attendants reported facing extensive verbal abuse, including from visibly drunk passengers, passengers yelling and swearing in response to masking directions, and often aggressively challenging flight crew working to ensure compliance with federal rules. Many respondents recounted aggressive incidents, including shoving, kicking seats, throwing trash at flight crew, and defiling the restroom in response to crew member instructions, and following flight crew through the airport to continue yelling and harassment.
One flight attendant wrote, “We tell them [passengers] that it is a federal offence to not comply with crew member instructions, and to use foul and/or threatening language onboard. Then the plane is met by airline supervisors or airport law enforcement, the passenger gets a slap on the wrist and sent on their way. I’ve been yelled at, cursed at and threatened countless times in the last year and the most that has come out of it has been a temporary suspension of travel for the passenger. We need real consequences if flight attendants are ever going to feel safe at work again.”
Another flight attendant wrote, “I was on the floor in the back of the plane and the [rest of] the crew members didn’t know what happened until after my attacker had already deplaned.”
• 33% of the respondents reporting verbal incidents said that law enforcement was requested to meet their flight in response to the incident. Of the respondents that encountered physical incidents, 60% said law enforcement was requested to meet their flight.
• 84% of respondents reported that they experienced unruly behaviour during flight, 50% reported witnessing misconduct during boarding, and 13% reported bad behaviour beginning in the gate area.
• 61% of respondents reported that disruptive passengers used racist, sexist and/or homophobic slurs during incidents. Many specific examples were provided, most of which the AFA says were too offensive to repeat.
“Racist, sexist and homophobic abuse of flight crews creates a hostile environment for everyone onboard and violates federal law. It has no place anywhere, and certainly not in a workplace environment. Our union has fought discrimination and prejudice for decades, and we are not about to allow this moment to set us back. Hell no! Not on our watch. Aviation is about bringing people together, not tearing us apart. Every person matters, and we can only have the freedom of flight when we recognise the reality that we are all in this together.”