Nelson reported that the FAA had logged 4,284 unruly passenger reports since January. At this rate, she continued, 2021 was poised to produce a higher passenger misconduct incident count “than the entire history of commercial aviation.”
At the center of the chaos are the flight attendants tasked with in-flight safety management. Burned out and frustrated, many have had enough.
“I got called a ‘bitch’ last month because someone was taking their mask off to cough and I told them to keep it on,” says Jules, an Illinois-based flight attendant who is in her ninth year of flying for a major US airline. As far as she’s seen, the increased frequency and severity of passenger outbursts has been “drastic”. It has been, she says, “a long year and a half”. (Jules and the other active flight attendants interviewed for this story have asked that their names, and those of the airlines they work for, be withheld.)
Jules began to notice the shift last year. She can count several incidents where police were called to assist with insubordinate passengers on a flight she was working, either prior to takeoff or post-landing. Two of them took place during October last year alone. On one of those occasions, a male passenger attempted to shove her out of his way when she told him to wear a mask while he walked to the lavatory. Jules, who was five months pregnant at the time, wound up working two more flights before taking an early maternity leave.
“I became too scared that my baby would get hurt,” says Jules. “I’d been verbally abused by passengers before, but nobody had ever put their hands on me before.”
Even when the outbursts don’t involve physical contact or threats of violence, they make for an annoying day’s work. Molly, an eight-year flight attendant for a major US airline who lives in New York, notes that while she hasn’t had to deal with “anything too extreme” since the pandemic, more and more passengers “are acting out in strange and immature ways.”
“One example that sticks out was on a flight from Orlando to Chicago,” Molly recalls. “I asked a man in first class to put his mask on while we were in flight and the next time I passed through the cabin, he was angrily holding the entire top of a Coca-Cola can in his mouth instead of wearing the mask.” Most problem passengers have been people who present as men, roughly between the ages of 30 and 70.
“They seem to be the most upset and frustrated and definitely need the most reminding about following rules for air travel,” Molly says. “Many seem to take it as a personal attack rather than just a reminder about the contract they signed [when booking their tickets], agreeing to wear a mask throughout their journey.”