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The Federal Aviation Administration said it has received around 3,000 reports of unruly passenger behavior from airlines since the start of the year. The agency implemented a “zero tolerance” policy and threatened fines of up to $ 35,000 earlier this year, after a series of politically motivated incidents on flights and airports at the time. of the riot at the United States Capitol on January 6.
The FAA has so far recommended civil penalties in excess of $ 360,000, according to airline industry figures, although recent agency releases describe incidents that allegedly occurred in February, meaning that ‘there are probably more cases and fines to disclose.
Flight attendants unions say their members have been subjected to insults and yelling from passengers, some of them intoxicated, and in rare instances of violence. A Southwest Airlines flight attendant lost two teeth after being hit by a passenger while working on a flight last month, the union said. Several captains have had to hijack or rotate planes this year due to disruptive or violent incidents on board.
“It’s out of control,” said Paul Hartshorn, spokesperson for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents more than 20,000 American Airlines cabin crew. “It really gets to the point where we have to defend ourselves. “
Airlines executives note that cases are rare given the number of passengers they carry. Transportation Security Administration airport checks recently passed 2 million a day, the highest since before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic in mid-March 2020.
But the problem adds to the stress of flight attendants after a year of job insecurity and work-related health issues amid a pandemic, said Sara Nelson, a prominent union leader and international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the world’s largest flight attendant union with some 50,000 members across more than a dozen airlines.
“Even if it doesn’t reach the level of a physical altercation, just the constant quarrels, name calling and disrespect, which wear out people,” she said.
Most of the cases have been linked to the refusal of passengers to wear masks on board, which the Biden administration mandated earlier this year, although airlines have been demanding it since the start of the pandemic. The administration extended it until mid-September.
There is not just one reason behind the incidents, but the law is a common thread in the manifestations of anger, according to Ryan Martin, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who has studied anger for about two decades and is the author of “Why We Get Angry: How to Use Your Anger for Positive Change”.
“What we do know is that law correlates with anger, which means the more rights you have the more angry you are,” Martin said.
Another factor behind disruptive behavior could be readily available examples of other people acting the same online, he said.
“We have seen many examples of people who have lost their temper and have had what I would call temper tantrums over the past year, very publicly,” Martin said. “Some of these things may have modeled a way of dealing with problems for people that is not really a sane and reasonable way of dealing with problems. “
Heightened anxiety about returning to travel could also have exacerbated tensions, he added, although he noted that one of the best indicators of whether a person will become violent is that they believe in violence. to resolve the issues in the first place.
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Airlines for America, which represents most of the major US airlines, as well as several industry unions, wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday urging him to ask the Department of Justice to “commit to fully prosecute and publicly the acts of violence on board ”.
At a hearing last week, Representative Bennie Thompson, D.-Miss., Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asked about what the agency is doing to fight assaults and other unruly behavior on planes and at airports.
“We have also prepared the Federal Air Marshals to deal with any acts of violence that they themselves observe during flights,” Mayorkas said. “It is important to note that we are working with law enforcement to ensure that these acts are respected with the full force of federal law. Those people who commit these heinous acts are prosecuted with all the rigor of the law. “
Nelson, the union leader, said that a TSA’s currently voluntary self-defense course for flight attendants should be part of their compulsory and paid training provided by airlines.
Brady Byrnes, general manager of flight service at American, told staff, “We also recognize that alcohol can contribute to atypical customer behavior on board and we owe it to our crew not to potentially exacerbate what can already be done. be a new and stressful situation for our customers. “
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“At the gate we can handle it, but at 35,000 feet it becomes a serious problem very quickly,” said Hartshorn.
Flight attendants are trained to defuse arguments with passengers, unions say. Nelson, a 25-year-old flight attendant at United, noted that one challenge is that flight attendants have fewer tools than usual to deal with disruptive passengers.
One tactic for dealing with a disruptive passenger may be to move them to another seat, but planes fly fuller, leaving fewer options, she said. Food services were also limited during the pandemic, so it is not always possible to offer passengers food or drink to try to calm them down.
A clearer message about the rules and consequences, from airport bars to officials, is important, however, she added.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, a former Delta pilot, has made several media appearances, including last week on TMZ, in an attempt to warn travelers of hefty fines and potential jail time for behavior disruptive or violent behavior, and the agency frequently posted on social media. warn travelers to behave or face consequences.
A Dallas / Fort Worth International-based American Airlines flight attendant told CNBC the increase in unruly passengers had discouraged her from pressuring passengers to wear masks if they were refused.
“If I see that it is heating up, I will back off,” said the flight attendant, who requested anonymity because she feared it could jeopardize her job. She said she hadn’t known an unruly traveler, but added, “I think it’s a matter of time. “