T&I Aviation Hearing Explores Air Rage Incidents

Unruly passenger incidents are not new to aviation, but the rates of verbal disputes, threats, and sometimes physical altercations with disobedient passengers have reached unprecedented levels. Yesterday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a serious (and sometimes lively) hearing titled “Disruption in the Skies: The Surge in Air Rage and its Effects on Workers, Airlines, and Airports,” learning about the problems from flight attendants, airlines, and airport representatives, and trying to work through solutions to curb this widespread disobedient behavior.

Witnesses included:

  • Sara Nelson, International President, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO
  • Teddy Andrews, Flight Attendant, Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA)
  • Christopher R. Bidwell, Senior Vice President, Airports Council International, North America
  • Lauren Beyer, Vice President, Security and Facilitation, Airlines for America

Eighty-five percent of flight attendants dealt with unruly passenger since the beginning of the year and one in five had a physical altercation, a statistic Nelson shared. In sixty-one percent of these incidents, passengers used racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs. While some members like Garret Graves (R-LA) argued the numbers are almost insignificant as only .001% percent of passengers are causing these unruly incidents, Nelson and Andrews countered that the numbers are still too high. FAA data released earlier this week show that instances are trending down since February, though the issue is still elevated from pre-pandemic levels.

The hearing explored the problems with the current system and witnesses and representatives posed possible solutions to combat this persistence of disruptive air rage incidents.

Alcohol was cited as a key cause of passenger rowdiness. Full committee chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) noted that in the past year, there has been an increase in incidents related to alcohol consumption. While Graves pushed back, saying that statistics indicate only six percent of unruly incidents are due to alcohol, others such as Nelson argued that there is no way to tell whether alcohol was involved in the other 75 percent of incidents regarding wearing masks. More concessionaires are advertising to-go alcohol, meant to be consumed in the terminal since it is illegal to bring alcohol on a flight.

DeFazio and Nelson recommended discontinuing to-go alcohol, cracking down on airport vendors, and putting notices and verbal signage at restaurants and in the airport reminding passengers that drinking your own alcohol on a flight is illegal. In addition, Nelson recommended increasing staffing of gate attendants. These workers serve as the first line of defense, and if a passenger is showing signs of clear intoxication, they can deny them from flying and neutralize a problem before it occurs.

Another issue discussed in the hearing was the inconsistent messaging about mask requirements. Many localities have rescinded mask mandates, so some passengers are upset that masks are still required on flights. Some have been misled by the communications of their local communities and Andrews noted that this mixed messaging makes it very confusing, leaving flight attendants to sort it out. In particular, Nelson noted, unruly incidents tend to come from places where there are no mask mandates, such as Charlotte, NC, and Florida and Texas airports. Both Nelson and Andrews agree on the need for clear and accurate messaging so members of the public do not come to airports with incorrect assumptions about masking. John Katko (R-NY) called for civility in the mask argument, urging his colleagues on his side of the aisle to help enforce the rules of law instead of virtue signaling about individual freedoms.

Pete Stauber (R-MN), whose son has Down’s Syndrome, asked about the process for getting medical exemptions for masks. Nelson explained that typically a family would notify the airline 72 hours beforehand of a passenger’s condition, provide medical documentation if needed, and the airline would confirm an exemption. She emphasized the importance of doing this beforehand, as it is up to the judgement of flight attendants if someone comes onto a plane and claims an exemption.

The most significant deterrent to air rage incidents is the prospect of hefty fines of up to $37,000, prosecution, and banning those fliers from future flights. But the hearing showed these disincentives need improvement. It is difficult for the airlines to coordinate with law enforcement on the ground, often leading to incidents occurring but no charges being pressed. Even if there is a physical altercation between a passenger and a flight attendant, sometimes the law enforcement on the ground is not well coordinated or no federal agents are present at smaller airports. For other instances, egregious incidents often go unreported because flight attendants do not always have the time to file a report due to quick turnarounds between flights. Nelson and Andrews recommend having better communication with local law enforcement and for airlines to be more flexible with staff when they report these incidents. Andrews recommended that flight attendants be notified when there is prosecution of unruly passengers, as currently they can report instances but have no way of knowing the outcome. Nelson recommended that the DOJ publicize these prosecutions widely: if passengers realize that they could be heavily fined or face jail time, they could be less disruptive.

Another topic of discussion was how to improve coordination between airlines. For example, airlines currently do not have a shared no-fly list: they legally cannot share this data with each other. Nelson recommended the FAA create a “flyer banned” database shared between airlines with clear metrics on how someone can be put on as well as taken off the list.

The zero-tolerance policy at the FAA is crucial, and Nelson and Andrews believe it should be made permanent. Still 1 out of 1,600 flights is reporting an unruly passenger incident. Protecting workers and travelers might mean less available alcohol in terminals and more gate agents to keep watch on the state of those entering the aircraft. Accurate messaging to the public, coordinating with local law enforcement and allowing flight attendants to report incidents when they occur, and finally using FBI/DOJ prosecutions to publicize the consequences are all steps this industry panel identified that can be taken to mitigate unruly passenger behaviors.

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