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Flight attendants plead for jail time for abusive passengers

One in six flight attendants say they’ve had a physical incident with passengers this year, sometimes involving
punching and kicking.
Passengers
Passengers board a Southwest Airlines flight in Seatac, Wash., bound for Denver on Aug. 16, 2020.(Kyle Arnold/DMN)

By Kyle Arnold

Flight attendants are pleading for help from the Justice Department and other law enforcement agencies to curb the epidemic of unruly passengers on planes that has emerged in recent months.

So far this year, nearly 1 in 6 flight attendants has had a physical experience with an unruly passenger, mostly involving people who were drunk and obstinate about face mask rules.

That number comes from a survey of more than 5,000 flight attendants at various airlines across the U.S. attempting to address the increased abuse that flight attendants have experienced as airlines recover from the slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey was conducted by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents flight attendants at United Airlines as well as American Airlines’ regional carrier Envoy.

It showed that more than 85% of flight attendants have encountered unruly passengers so far this year.

“We may see more incidents in this one year alone than we’ve seen in the entire history of aviation,” said Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International president Sara Nelson Thursday. “The atmosphere that this relatively small number of passengers is creating is increasingly hostile.”

Flight attendants across the industry, including those at Fort Worth-based American Airlines and Dallas-based Southwest, have complained that their jobs have become increasingly difficult since the COVID-19 pandemic began, starting with the increased risk of flying on planes early in the pandemic to the 3,200-plus unruly-passenger incidents the Federal Aviation Administration has recorded this year.

In the last few weeks, flight attendants and pilots at American and Southwest have also said they’ve had a harder time getting hotel rooms and transportation, as well as food both at the airport and when traveling to lodging.

Most incidents reported to the FAA include some elements of passengers who are hostile over the mandate by airlines and the federal government to wear face masks on planes and in airports to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

In the survey, flight attendants reported being yelled at, cursed at, shoved and kicked. Others said they’ve had trash thrown at them. They said that some passengers have defiled bathrooms after confrontations, and some of them continue yelling in the airport after getting off the plane.

More than half of the flight attendants say alcohol is a factor.

In May, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant was punched and lost teeth during an altercation with a customer.

The face mask mandate is set to expire Sept. 13.

“I also believe that based on what we’re seeing and the trends that this is giving us a little bit of indication that it is more likely that the announcement will be extended beyond Sept. 13,” Nelson said.

The FAA has levied thousands in fines against unruly passengers, and a handful have been charged criminally as well, usually after physically assaulting flight attendants.

The FAA instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding the mask issue in March, but Nelson said it hasn’t been enough.

“We are again imploring the DOJ to conduct criminal prosecution,” Nelson said. “When people are facing jail time for acting out on a plane, we suddenly see some sobering up.”

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