The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has received 961 unruly passenger incidents since January 1, 2022. Of the 961 incidents, 635 involved facemasks, of which the FAA initiated an investigation on 274 incidents. In 2021, the FAA received more than 6,400 unruly passenger incidents, 4600 of which involved masks.
Air rage is aggressive or violent behavior on the part of a passenger, or passengers, on-board an aircraft and directed at the flight crews or other passengers. The first reported air rage case was in 1947 when an intoxicated passenger assaulted a flight attendant and another passenger on a flight from Havana to Miami. In 1950, another case was documented that involved a flight in Alaska when a passenger, later found to have had a history of mental problems, assaulted a flight attendant. The First officer left the cockpit and, with the help of two passengers, they were able to restrain the passenger.
The most significant known factor that causes air rage is alcohol. U. S. Airlines began serving alcohol on board in 1949, and, in some cases, it resulted in intoxicated passengers not complying with safety or security policies. During the Covid 19 pandemic years, the airlines ceased serving alcohol on board the planes, but that did not reduce the number of reported air rage incidents.
Covid 19 began affecting the lives of everyone in the world in March 2020. People lost their jobs, family members, homes, and businesses. Families were stressed — worried about making the mortgage or rent payment, grocery stores were closed, and Amazon was doing its best to deliver supplies. Stress and fear put everyone at a risk of more conflict — conflict with family members as everyone was stuck in the home together for extended periods. There was a conflict with store personnel when items were unavailable and the fear of the unknown — when is Covid going to end?
The number of reported passenger incidents has been consistent since the FAA began tracking the data in 1985, but that changed on January 29, 2021, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) created a ruling that travelers on public transportation conveyances and at airports must wear a face mask. The United States Federal Government backed the CDC ruling, and airlines immediately required that all passengers wear a face mask while on board the plane.
International air travel was down 75% in 2020 and 2021 compared to 2019, as many countries had closed their borders to travelers. Domestic air travel was down 45% compared to 2019 due to companies reducing business travel and families not taking vacations. Airline passengers were required to wear face masks to help prevent the spread of the virus. The flight attendants for the airlines were tasked with enforcing the mask policy. While most passengers complied, those who did not adhere often verbally and physically assaulted flight attendants and other passengers. The increase in unruly passengers on board airplanes resulted in Flight attendants refusing to work, delayed flights, planes returning to the gate to drop off non-compliant passengers, and, in many cases, an arrest. Airlines, the Federal Government, and Flight attendant unions struggled to find a quick solution to reduce the on-board conflicts. The FAA increased potential civil penalties for those who violated the regulation while airlines created internal no-fly lists and banned passengers who did not comply. The on-board conflicts continued to rise.
As humans, we have profound rooted principles learned from our parents and teachers; they define how we live, work, and behave around others. Differing Values are one of the most common drivers of conflict and were undoubtedly one of the reasons that many passengers refused to wear a mask while on an airplane. Some individuals felt that wearing a mask was the government’s way of controlling citizens. Other passengers felt that wearing the mask was a violation of individual freedoms. Many complained that being forced to wear a mask was against their religious belief or that they could not breathe. Most airplane passengers accepted that wearing a mask was uncomfortable but would help reduce exposure to the Covid 19 virus. They got that they did not have the power to win a conflict of differing values. Passengers with a different value than the airline’s mask policy were removed from the plane.
With air travel down, the aviation industry would expect the number of unruly passenger incidents to decline; however, the FAA and airlines would soon experience a drastic rise in unruly passengers. In 2021, the FAA received 5,981 disorderly passenger reports, of which 4,290 were mask-related incidents. The FAA initiated 1,113 investigations that resulted in 350 enforcement actions. The increase directly resulted from the on-board mask policy, with many passengers challenging the government authority to mandate a citizen wear a mask.
Different Perspectives are another driver of conflict on board planes, and there are numerous videos on social media of airplane passengers sharing their mask perspectives with others. Individuals who wore the mask would demand that others wear a mask. When a passenger refused to comply, conflicts would grow louder and often became physical. The problem with different perspectives is trying to convince the other person that their perspective is incorrect. Most passengers were optimists, believing they would stay healthy if they wore masks. The passengers who did not want to wear a mask were pessimists; they thought wearing a mask did not prevent the spread of the virus.
On March 24, 2022, ten airline CEOs came together with Airlines for America to request that President Biden end the federal mask mandate on planes stating that “the restrictions no longer reflect the realities of the current epidemiological environment.” The Federal Courts terminated the federal mask mandate on April 19, 2022, and immediately the unruly passenger incidents declined by approximately 70%, but violent incidents continued. The Federal Aviation Administration scrambled to find a solution to combat the rise in violence, including proposing a National “no-fly’ list. The national no-fly list would follow International, Federal, and State laws to ensure that the person’s civil liberties are protected and only include passengers found guilty of an unruly passenger incident. The reported incidents involve:
• Assaulting airport/airline crew members.
• Damaging aircraft property.
• Interfering with flight crews.
• Serious criminal incidents.
There are ways to resolve a conflict.
The flight attendant should talk directly to the passenger who needs to follow the safety or security procedure and not by using the public address system. Establish a rapport, and speak politely but firmly, reminding passengers that their safety is the airline’s concern.
Planning can help resolve the conflict quickly. The customer service agent boarding a flight sees the passenger is not wearing their mask and should immediately address the issue. Too often, the passengers are allowed to board the plane, and removing them becomes a challenge.
Never play the blame game or name call; for instance, the flight attendant tells the unruly passenger, “The Captain says if you do not comply with my requests, he/she will have you removed from the plane.” The passenger’s immediate response will be, “Let me talk to the pilot.
In the United States, The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is developing a program allowing airlines to share unruly passenger information. TSA would securely maintain the national ‘no-fly’ list, and the data would be provided and updated by participating airlines. An airline can add or remove a passenger from the “national no-fly list’ at any time. The FBI maintains the Federal no-fly list, which contains a list of known terrorists or those suspected of involvement with terrorist activities. The Federal no-fly list does not contain unruly passengers who have committed a crime on board an aircraft.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is a regulatory agency tasked with ensuring airport security and preventing the hijacking of an aircraft, the database at the security checkpoints would contain information from the national no-fly list.
The details for the standardized no-fly list would be set by the airlines’ collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security. For example, failing to wear a mask on an airline would not get someone on the national no-fly list. However, assaulting an airline employee and a subsequent arrest and conviction would qualify an individual on the federal no-fly list.
A national no-fly list would ensure the safety of airline/airport crew members and passengers by preventing unruly individuals access to aircraft for a pre-determined amount of time or indefinitely.
Explicit and conscious explanations of security and safety policies will help reduce airplane conflicts. Professional conflict resolution training for flight attendants would provide them with the tools to de-escalate situations before they become serious.