The spike in unruly-passenger incidents on US flights has Washington alarmed

Battle zones.
Battle zones.
Image: Reuters/Kathleen Flynn
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Chalk this up to another side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In its latest bulletin, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports that 4,385 unruly-passenger incidents have occurred on flights since January, with 85% of the altercations involving face masks. The agency has launched formal investigations into 789 cases, which is more than quadruple the number of incidents in 2020.

One reason for the spike in investigations is that the FAA established a zero-tolerance policy in January, substituting warnings and counseling with legal action and fines of up to $37,000 per incident against any traveler who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with an airline crew member.

The number of reported in-flight incidents overall (not just those investigated) has been falling since the FAA instituted its hardline policy, suggesting the new measures are working. But FAA administrator Steve Dickson points out that the rate of incidents is still alarmingly high compared to previous years. “Our work is having an impact and the trend is moving in the right direction but we need the progress to continue. This remains a serious safety threat, and one incident is one too many,” he said in a press statement.

All travelers in the US, he stresses, are required to wear face masks in airports and on commercial flights regardless of their vaccination status.

Senators Durbin and Cantwell want the DOJ involved

Travelers who cause disturbances on flights can face steep fines and criminal charges. The most egregious cases so far include that of a Frontier Airlines passenger who picked a fight with a flight attendant and fellow passengers over bootleg alcohol he brought onboard. He was fined $21,500 for violating the FAA’s ban on alcohol consumption and for refusing to wear a mask. Another incident involved a 22-year-old passenger who sexually assaulted two flight attendants. He was taped to his seat and arrested when the plane landed in Miami.

A consortium of airlines and US lawmakers are appealing for even stiffer measures. In a Sept. 20 memo, senators Richard Durbin of Illinois, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Maria Cantwell of Washington, who heads the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, asked the Justice Department to get involved in prosecuting wayward travelers.

Meanwhile, the rise in rambunctious travelers has been a boon to Instagram “Passenger Shaming,” which broadcasts crowdsourced examples of obnoxious passenger behavior to its 1.4 million followers. Shawn Kathleen, a former flight attendant and self-described “curator of cringe” who runs the site, saw a dramatic spike in followers over the course of the pandemic. In an interview with Washington Post, Kathleen appealed for order on behalf of his fellow flight attendants. “Don’t be that jerk on the plane who sits food in front of them for three hours so they look like they’re eating to not wear their mask,” he said.