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Flight Attendants Ask for Tougher Law Enforcement Against Air Rage

September 23, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Looking out from Terminal C at Reagan National Airport. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — Teddy Andrews said Thursday he was trying to smooth over a dispute between airline passengers when he approached a man who refused to wear a mask.

A female passenger had approached the flight attendant to say she was concerned about contracting coronavirus from the noncompliant man.

Andrews, who only narrowly survived a COVID-19 infection that left him hospitalized, told the man mask-wearing was required on American Airlines flights.

He quoted the man during his congressional testimony replying, “(N-word), I don’t have to listen to a damn thing you say. This is a free country.”

Initially, the pandemic scared off passengers and left airlines scrambling for a strategy to manage the crisis. As the first wave of the pandemic subsided, the delta variant hit the airlines again, this time with passengers who were increasingly frustrated with masking and other health rules.

“Flight attendants are in a third phase of crisis,” Andrews told the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation. “Now our most immediate danger is air rage.”

Lawmakers on the subcommittee are exploring the possibility of tougher criminal enforcement against unruly passengers as air rage incidents spike.

So far, most of the penalties have consisted of heavy fines, some as high as $37,000 per offense. Now Congress is considering more Justice Department prosecutions.

Air rage refers to air travelers or airline personnel who act violently, abusively or disruptively during flights.

From 2015 to 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration investigated 786 cases of unruly passengers. So far this year, the FAA has launched 789 investigations.

In addition, an Association of Flight Attendants survey released in July reported that among 5,000 flight attendants surveyed, 85% said they were confronted by unruly passengers in 2021.

Difficult passengers sometimes used sexist, racist or homophobic language, according to 61% of the flight attendants. Seventeen percent of them said they were victims of physical attacks this year.

All airline industry witnesses and lawmakers at the congressional hearing blamed stress from the pandemic as a major factor in the higher rate of air rage incidents.

“Everyone is at a stress level 10,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

Passengers who drink alcohol cause most of the disruptions, which was a problem even before the pandemic that started in late 2019, she said.

But the pandemic — masking requirements, social distancing, fear of illness and loss of family members — have definitely added to the flare-ups.

“I can confirm that mental health has been under strain for sure,” Nelson said.

Nevertheless, airline crews unfairly suffer the brunt of other persons’ anger, she and other witnesses said.

“We need [the U.S. Department of Justice] to take more aggressive action,” she said.

Her calls for tougher law enforcement met with general agreement from the members of Congress.

“We need more prosecutions when there are serious, violent incidents on airplanes,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., cautioned against using police to clamp down on air rage without also considering the human factors from the pandemic that are contributing to it.

“I think it’s really important that we look at this from the passenger perspective as well,” Graves said.

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