Federal Aviation Regulations 91.11, 121.580 and 135.120 state that “no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.”
Interfering with the duties of a crewmember violates federal law. And yet, weekly we see and hear reports about yet another unruly passenger outburst, clash or assault — some sexual in nature and others merely physical — occurring on aircraft or at the gate.
The repercussions for passengers who engage in unruly behavior can be substantial. Fines can be imposed by the FAA or the offenders can be prosecuted on criminal charges. FAA can propose up to $37,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases.
Under the new zero tolerance policy, the FAA says it will not address unruly passenger cases with warnings or counseling. The agency will pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members.
But still, it doesn’t seem to be enough to deter people from acting out in such negative and outrageous ways which compromises the safety of everyone. Can anything else be done?
Let’s look at the numbers. There have been 5,664 unruly passenger reports as of the writing of this column so far in the year 2021. In addition, 4,072 incidents have been mask-related. According to the FAA, 76% of passenger incidents reported during the first five months of 2021 were over masks.
At a Senate hearing December 15, 2021 Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said he thinks the mask mandate for airline passengers should be lifted. “I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add very much, if anything, in the air cabin environment,” Kelly said. “It is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting.” Keep in mind that only a year ago Gary Kelly said, “If people would wear the mask — please wear the mask — we can defeat this pandemic.”
At this same hearing American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said he agreed. “I concur,” Parker said. “An aircraft is the safest place you can be. It’s true of all of our aircraft — they all have the same HEPA filters and airflow.” That may be true for American Airlines aircraft but not all aircraft have HEPA filters and that doesn’t even address the airport terminal where passengers must congregate and stand shoulder to shoulder while boarding a flight. Or the point that some people are vaccinated and some are not, like children under five years old.
Right now the Transportation Security Administration’s mask mandate has been extended to March 2022.
Outspoken flight attendant union leader Sara Nelson had this to say about the mask mandate: “I believe that the government has taken a very responsible approach to this. We believe it should continue to stay in place. [It’s a] workplace safety issue,” she said at the hearing. “We do need a consistent message though. I hope we are going to stay on the same messages and follow the medical experts, and do what’s necessary to keep everybody safe.” She also concluded that it is the medical community that should make the decision about whether to mandate mask use on airline flights.
For the record, studies have shown that masks significantly decrease the chances of transmitting or contracting the coronavirus, depending upon the type of mask used. The N95 is the gold standard, experts say.
Mandating the wearing of masks only seems to incense some people and that has clearly led to an uptick in unruly passenger incidents.
Oh Demon Alcohol
The FAA has also proposed $161,823 in civil penalties against eight airline passengers for alleged unruly behavior involving alcohol. Since Jan. 1, 2021, the FAA says it has received nearly 300 reports of passenger disturbances due to alcohol and intoxication.
Federal law prohibits passengers from consuming alcohol aboard a flight that is not served by a flight attendant. Airport bars frequently offer “to-go” cups for passengers awaiting their flights but in August this year, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson sent a letter to airports requesting that they work to prevent passengers from bringing to-go cups of alcohol aboard the aircraft.
Flight attendant leader Sara Nelson also called for airports to limit passenger access to alcohol before flights, saying it sent the wrong message to push access right up to boarding and then allowing more to be carried onto the aircraft. Currently, both Southwest and American have banned alcohol sales in economy class through January 2022.
What has happened to good old decorum, being ashamed of outrageous behavior and common decency? The rate of unruly passenger incidents on commercial flights has dropped since the FAA launched its Zero Tolerance campaign but incidents continue to occur. Clearly it is not enough.
Perhaps we need to rethink booking levels and dividing the aircraft accordingly. Instead of first class and economy, let’s have partitians and extra-high fares for maskless fliers and those who want to drink onboard and place them in the back.
And for non-alcohol imbibing, mask-wearing, pleasant and kind passengers, I suggest your cheapest fare, widest seats and extra legroom.