Pandemic Creates Environment for Increased Attacks on Airline Flight Attendants

Chriss Swaney

Sarasota, FL ( — The number of unruly passengers on U.S. flights has taken off as pandemic- stressed adults and teens harass, and in some cases, physically harm airline crews.

“We’ve never before seen aggression and violence on our planes like we have in the past five months. Already, reports of these incidents in less than five months are more than 20 times the amount in a typical year,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International representing 50,000 members at 17 airlines.

Nelson pointed out that the constant combative attitude over wearing masks is exhausting and sometimes horrific for the people who have been on the frontlines of this pandemic for over a year. “The atmosphere is so bad, it’s causing flight attendants to quit the job they love,” said Nelson.

All gate agents and flight attendants are trained to observe customers as they board, and if they see an unruly passenger the crew is able to deny boarding, according to the Association of Flight Attendants. As part of the airline industry’s gradual return to normal, all alcohol sales have been suspended through September with the exception of premium and long-haul international flights. There is also a process in place to help fight attendants report customer mask noncompliance while the federal mask mandate is still in effect.

“The previous administration made the pandemic response a matter of politics, rather than mobilizing the public in a shared purpose to take on the biggest disaster relief effort needed in over 100 years,” Nelson said. “Masks were politicized and violence was stoked. We are bearing the brunt of this every day at work, including serious injury,” Nelson said.

“It’s dangerous, unacceptable and it’s got to stop,” Nelson added.

Flight attendants have the highest risk of catching COVID compared to any other non-health care profession, according to a World Economic Forum/Visual Capitalist report. The CDC said that close quarters on planes may increase the risk of contracting COVID-19 but added that most viruses don’t spread easily in the cabin due to advanced filtration systems. Still, it’s hard to know exactly how many people have contracted COVID on airplanes because of long incubation periods.

One flight attendant even had her front teeth knocked out. Others have been spit at and beaten, or forcefully pushed to the plane floor in mid-flight.

Even the FAA is now keeping track of attacks. The number of unruly passengers on U.S. flights has continued to soar. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, from January 1 through May 24, there were roughly 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, including about 1,900 reports of people disobeying the federal mask mandate, which is still in place.

The FAA has not always kept track on unruly passenger reports, but began keeping a tally when cases surged. Through May 25, the agency has already recorded 394 potential violations, while in all of 2019 and 2020 there were just 146 and 183 violations, respectively.

Flight attendants also report that they are battling depression and erratic schedules and pay, all while being treated as the “mask police” by a hostile public.

Many flight attendants say it is difficult to show emotion to passengers with the face all covered up. “With the mask on you have to smile with your eyes, and that is challenging,” said Judy Shore, a retired flight attendant.

Airline analysts say financial performance will be worse and more varied this year than expected because of difficulties in controlling the virus variants and slower vaccinations in some regions.

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