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Recent news stories about air travel have brought tales of passengers having to be physically restrained after assaulting flight attendants and other dangerous behavior that has resulted in planes being diverted from their routes so the unruly passengers can be removed.
Certainly, most flights get to their destinations without such eruptions. However, incidents of air rage — and just plain hostility directed at airline employees and other travelers — are on the rise. This puts all airline passengers and employees at risk and causes unnecessary disruption and delays, which inevitably cost money.
Flying has always been stressful for many. Your autonomy is limited and you have virtually no control over what happens on the plane and when you arrive at the destination airport.
Even before the pandemic brought new rules and new stresses, air travel hasn’t been particularly pleasant as airlines cram more and more passengers into planes and charge for “premium seats” and checked bags. Perks like snacks and drinks may not be offered, or be free.
It’s no wonder we’re often cranky when traveling by plane. But that is no reason for outbursts and outrageous behavior. When it comes to flying, passengers either need to improve their behavior or face new rules and restrictions to keep everyone safe in the sky.
Even as passenger numbers were down, more than 3,500 reports of unruly passengers on flights have been logged this year by the Federal Aviation Administration, far exceeding anything the agency has seen in the past. Of those, 581 were deemed serious enough to prompt a formal investigation, the FAA said.
Nearly three-quarters of the incidents involved refusal to wear face masks, which are required on all flights in the U.S.
“Flight attendants continue to encounter unprecedented levels of air rage and passenger misconduct,” Julie Hedrick, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union at American Airlines Group Inc., told Bloomberg. “Where criminal charges apply, the federal government should prosecute offenders to the fullest extent.”
Federal law prohibits passengers from interfering or physically assaulting aircraft crew or others on the aircraft because it can threaten the safety of a flight.
However, despite the rising number of cases and their severity, unruly passengers face few repercussions, according to a recent Bloomberg review. When a flight is in the air, the FAA is responsible for its safety, but it has no authority to bring charges. The agency is, however, seeking significant fines against passengers in several recent cases that involved assaults of flight attendants.
In June, groups representing flight attendants, pilots and airlines sent a letter to the Department of Justice asking for more prosecution in cases of on-board violence.
“We ask that more be done to deter egregious behavior, which is in violation of federal law and crewmember instruction. Specifically, the federal government should send a strong and consistent message through criminal enforcement that compliance with federal law and upholding aviation safety are of paramount importance,” the groups wrote.
Individual airlines also maintain no-fly lists that ban disruptive passengers, but they do not share them with other airlines. Perhaps they should.
With COVID cases rising in the U.S. and the more transmissible and virulent delta variant spreading here as millions of Americans take to the air, a proposal from Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, to eliminate the federal mask mandate for planes is misguided. Air travel is generally safe, public health officials say, if all passengers wear masks.
Instead of weaker rules, airline employees — especially flight crews — need better support from federal agencies to ensure their safety, as well as the safety of all airplane passengers.