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AFA Union Survey Suggests Unruly Flyers Are a Much Bigger Problem

New data from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA suggests the overwhelming majority of flight crews have delt with at least one unruly passenger since the beginning of 2021. Over 85 percent of attendants say they were forced to confront a passenger behaving badly, while 33 percent ended with law enforcement intervention.

New information released by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA suggests dealing with unruly flyers is becoming an alarmingly “new normal” for airline crews. The survey of just under 5,000 flight attendants says 85 percent have dealt with poorly behaving passengers since the beginning of 2021, with nearly one-in-five incidents ending in a physical altercation.

One-in-Three Incidents Require Law Enforcement, While 17 Percent End in Violence

The poll asked flight attendants from 30 airlines to share their experiences via an online survey. The responses from the group paints a disturbing picture of what’s actually going on in airports and on flights

Although nearly every flight attendant was forced to deal with an unruly flyer at least once in the first six months of 2021, over half said they experienced over five incidents. What’s worse, 17 percent of those ended in some form of physical altercation.

While the majority of incidents happened after the flight departed, half of the flight attendants said they witnessed misconduct during the boarding process. Only 13 percent of incidents happened at the gate area, such as the fight caught on tape at Miami International Airport (MIA).

In most incidents, passengers stoked tensions and aggravations by using abusive language to flight attendants and other flyers. Nearly two-thirds of those polled said the unruly flyers used racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs during their encounters. When the words escalated into violence, law enforcement was called to meet the aircraft 60 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, while the Federal Aviation Administration is acting against bad passengers, the flight crews say they are not getting support from their airlines. The survey shows 71 percent of workers never received any follow-up from their airline after filing an internal incident report.

“We tell them [passengers] that it is a federal offense to not comply with crew member instructions, use foul and/or threatening language onboard, and then the plane is met by airline supervisors or airport law enforcement and the passenger gets a slap on the wrist and sent on their way,” one flight attendant wrote in their response, “I’ve been yelled at, cursed at and threatened countless times in the last year and the most that has come out of it has been a temporary suspension of travel for the passenger. We need real consequences if flight attendants are ever going to feel safe at work again.”

As a result of the troubling findings, the AFA is asking for the U.S Department of Transportation and FAA to make their “zero tolerance policy” for unruly flyers permanent. The agency only extended the policy as long as face masks are required on flights.

“This is not a ‘new normal’ we are willing to accept,” Sara Nelson, president of the AFA-CWA, said in a press release. “We know the government, airlines, airports, and all stakeholders can take actions together to keep us safe and flying friendly. We will be sharing survey findings with FAA, DOT, TSA, and FBI to help more fully identify the problems and our union’s proposed actions to affect positive change.”

Findings Confirm FAA Data on Unruly Flyers

The survey results back the most recent data from the FAA about badly behaved passengers aboard aircraft in 2021. The new record for investigations doubles the previous record, based on over 3,600 reports submitted to the agency.

bigbuy August 10, 2021

Go to work in a retail environment in a low income or high crime area and you'll encounter this behavior 100 fold. The only difference is retail environments don't get this kind of coverage unless somebody is murdered but airlines get the coverage no matter how trivial it is. There is nothing that I have ever read that I did not encounter in 40 years of retail absolutely nothing including defecating in the aisle and having a gun pulled on me so I really don't have a whole lot of sympathy for these airline folks.

SkyIsKing August 4, 2021

Let's look at what airlines are supposed to provide for the price of a ticket. 1. Flight from Point A to Point B. 2. A safe environment for said flight and 3. Transport of passenger luggage 9within the allowed limits) from Point A to Point B. Outside of those things, airlines don't provide much else. If one purchases a ticket on an airline, then one should receive 1, 2, and 3. An airline isn't providing entertainment or an "experience". An airline isn't responsible for whether or not a passenger can fit into a seat; that's on the passenger (if you don't fit, you can either not fly or purchase a second/third seat. Airline flight is a privilege (provided you have purchased a ticket) and not a right. As a purchaser of a ticket, I have the right to sit in my purchased seat without contact from the person sitting next to me and receive 1, 2, and 3. Airline crews have the right to work in a safe environment so that they can do their jobs which is to provide 1, 2, and 3 for paying passengers. Rudeness and disrespectful behavior should not be tolerated on any flight and should result in the loss of flight privileges. If a passenger can't control their behavior, they should take other forms of transportation. If a person is out of control on the ground, I don't want them at 37,000 feet.

smes August 1, 2021

A few thoughts on this 1) Are we able to get a breakdown of the airlines this is most frequent on? I think the incidence rate is much higher on Spirit, Frontier, Southwest... low cost carriers + poors = trouble. 2) How many incidents are related to overhead bin space? It really is night-and-day how different the boarding process is pre and post 2009 when airlines really started charging for checked bags.

VRFast August 1, 2021

I agree with IMissThe747, but I think this has been an issue for a long time; less room on the plane combined with Americans getting larger. However, the added component now is Covid and the mask mandate and the natives are getting very violent and argumentative. Some will fight mask wearing others are on the opposite site; complaining about other not wearing their masks appropriately. I for one has paid the extra money to sit in first over the last year for leisure flying. At United I’ve not seen any issues with passengers, but I’m not a frequent flier so... Violence is indeed the tool of the “tool” (ignorant).

dliesse July 30, 2021

When I was working for United several years ago a well-known athlete got into an argument with either a GA or an FA while boarding the plane and ended up breaking her finger. The airline sided 100% with the passenger. Those of us hearing about it second-hand or worse were thoroughly disgusted. Is there a correlation with the lack of space? Quite likely, but that's still no excuse for uncivil behavior. Adults should know how to behave in public, and I like a line from one the late, great Flip Wilson's skits: "violence is the tool of the ignorant."