ANALYSIS: Angry Birds: Unruly Passengers Present A Growing Challenge

Credit: TracyHornbrook/iStock

The US is once more experiencing busy airports and full flights as domestic leisure travel numbers surge close to 2019 levels. In their pandemic isolation, however, some Americans appear to have forgotten how to behave in public.

Flight attendants have been sworn at, spat on, threatened and punched. After arguing with flight attendants over FAA-mandated mask-wearing rules, one passenger then got angry with a female passenger sitting next to her because she closed the window blind. The angry passenger hit the other woman, who was holding an infant, on the head.

FAA tweeted on July 20 that since Jan. 1 there had been 3,509 reports of unruly behavior on US planes. Of those, 2,606 cases involved refusal to wear a mask and the agency has initiated 581 investigations, including 87 cases that are liable for civil penalties.

FAA implemented a strict zero-tolerance policy at the beginning of this year against unruly behavior. The penalties for infringement can be severe and involve thousands of dollars as well as jail sentences. But that is not registering with those who suddenly break into a rage because they’ve been told to put on a mask, stay in their seat, not smoke or vape, or tone down loud and obscene language. For whatever reason, merely being told that they must comply with the onboard rules seems sufficient to spark an outburst that can be difficult to de-escalate. Passengers have become involved in helping cabin crew subdue and restrain those who have become violent. They risk being injured in the effort and, in many cases, the plans of all those onboard are disrupted as pilots are forced to divert, land at the nearest airport and let law enforcement officers remove the disruptor. Or, in some cases, disruptors. There have been multiple cases of entire groups of travelers joining in loud, aggressive or threatening behavior against passengers and cabin crew.

Looking for reasons for this spike in unruly behavior, many cite alcohol and some US carriers have suspended alcohol sales. An unintended consequence of that can be travelers stoking up on drink before their flight, so they board in a less rational and more disagreeable frame of mind.

But the biggest flashpoint, judging by FAA’s own numbers and description of incidents, is mask wearing. Across almost all the US, masks are no longer mandated in most settings, including shops, restaurants, grocery stores and gyms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that the non-vaccinated wear masks, but there’s no requirement to prove vaccination. US public transport systems, including buses, trains, airport terminals and planes, remain among the few exceptions where federal law requires masks. It’s a rule that makes sense, given the close proximity with which people must sit on a plane, and it continues to be strongly supported by airline labor groups. But for some Americans, mask wearing is political and an infringement of their personal freedom. They are told the rules—FAA and TSA run public awareness campaigns—and reluctantly wear a mask at the boarding gate to get on the flight. The trouble starts after the door closes, when it’s much harder to deal with, especially at 25,000 ft.

And that’s what makes this such a difficult problem to resolve. The prospect of fines and jail time, or of being banned from future flights in line with many US carrier policies, isn’t going to dissuade those who snap into an emotional rage. The no-alcohol policies are easily bypassed. Lifting the mask rule is a no-go with unions.

Loaded guns

And it’s not the only problem escalation that airports, security agencies and airlines are seeing as US air travelers return in large numbers. The other issue is that more of them are bringing their guns and attempting to take them onboard—often loaded.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rules are again clear. Weapons of any kind are not permitted in carry-ons; they must be checked and ammunition removed from guns.

Nationwide, TSA officers detected 3,257 firearms in the pockets or carry-on bags of passengers at checkpoints in 2020. As a ratio, this was double the number of cases year-over-year. In 2020, TSA caught approximately 10 firearms per million passengers compared to about five firearms per million passengers in pre-pandemic 2019. And of the guns caught by TSA last year, about 83% were loaded.

In June, a man was arrested by police after TSA officers discovered a loaded gun tucked into a pocket of his baby stroller at the airport security checkpoint.

The charitable interpretation of this spike in gun-toting passengers is that it’s been so long since they’ve flown, or they are so excited to be headed to the beach or to finally see grandma, that they’ve forgotten the rules of commercial flying. But the onboard weapons ban has been in place for many decades longer than the no-mask rule and was significantly stepped up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led to the creation of DHS and its TSA air security agency. A more specific explanation could be that more Americans are routinely carrying loaded guns in a tense pandemic world and it’s so routine that they don’t think twice about placing their gun in a baby stroller or on a TSA screening belt.

So far, TSA seems to be doing an excellent job of catching those weapons before the passengers go airside (though some may be concerned about how many people are wandering the unsecured terminal areas or are standing in long TSA queues with loaded guns at hand). But weapons have not been involved in any of this year’s onboard unruly incidents. Still, an angry, violent passenger is bad enough; one wielding a gun or machete is a whole different problem.

An American problem

US gun ownership and division over mask wearing may help explain another quirk about the uptick in unruly/uncompliant passenger behavior: It’s almost uniquely an American issue. Other countries that have seen air travel return—and which are under the same pandemic-related stresses—are not seeing anywhere near as many disruptive behavior incidents or a spike of cases versus pre-pandemic times.

Does this US problem require a US solution? And if that’s the case, what is it? Some argue that a sense of perspective and proportion is necessary. While the numbers are trending in the wrong direction, they point to them being very small relative to the number of flights that are completed every day with no incidents whatsoever—a classic case of a tiny minority of idiots getting outsize attention while the vast majority of passengers are law-abiding and well-behaved citizens.

Speaking on a panel at the Routes Americas 2021 event in Orlando in June, two ultra-LCC CEOs, Spirit Airlines’ Ted Christie and Frontier Airlines’ Barry Biffle, were asked about the issue and both urged perspective. “It’s a tense environment and there are definitely flare ups, but they are still a significant minority,” Christie said.

Biffle was more specific on what is happening and why: “The root cause is that you don’t wear a mask here [in a Florida event venue] or in a Walmart, but you have to wear them on an airplane, so people are agitated. It’s not about alcohol. The reality is a lot of people don’t want to wear masks. We fly 80,000 people a day and most days we don’t have to call the cops. Do you know a town with 80,000 people where they don’t call a cop each day?

“Let’s take a deep breath. … We have had an increase, but it’s still a relatively very small minority. We have to protect our employees and enforce the rules, but it’s not as bad as it sounds.”

That’s not much comfort to those who have been injured doing their job—and who are not security enforcement officers but are on the frontlines in this conflict—or to those who had a trip ruined because of another’s bad behavior. The inevitable headlines that the worst incidents generate also will not reassure those who remain reluctant to fly and the negative publicity may be particularly off-putting to the business traveler. The risk of getting punched on Microsoft Teams is zero; airlines do not want high-yield passengers drawing that conclusion as they consider a trip for an in-person business meeting.

If nothing else, this is a public image problem that the airlines do not need on top of all the other difficulties inflicted by the coronavirus. And flight attendants, who have faced furloughs, uncertainty and the stresses of working in a confined environment through a pandemic, most certainly do not need this additional and avoidable worry each time they welcome the next batch of passengers.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.