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A survey of 5,000 flight attendants released last week confirmed what recent Federal Aviation Administration data and numerous media reports show: Violence in the sky is a reality for those whose job is tending to airline passengers.
The Association of Flight Attendants survey found that more than 85% of respondents had dealt with unruly passengers as air travel picked up in the first half of this year; 58% had experienced at least five confrontations this year; and 17% reported experiencing a physical incident.
Flight attendants reported facing extensive verbal abuse, including from visibly drunk passengers, and challenges to efforts to enforce federal mandates such as masking rules. Many respondents recounted aggressive incidents, including shoving, kicking seats, throwing trash at flight crew members, defiling the restroom in response to crewmember instructions, and following flight crews through the airport to continue yelling and other harassment, according to the union’s survey.
When asked what they believed to be the cause or escalating reasons for the unruly behavior, flight attendants cited mask rules, alcohol, routine safety reminders, flight delays and cancellations as common factors.
The “incendiary” situation is forcing many flight attendants and airlines to rethink safety training, with de-escalation measures at the forefront, said Ben Baldanza, former CEO and president of Spirit Airlines, who runs his own advisory firm, Diemacher LLC, in Arlington, Virginia. “They are not necessarily trained how to de-escalate (conflict) on board, and the more help we can give them the better.”
A spokesman for the Transportation Security Authority said that in response to the “uptick in unruly passengers” the agency is relaunching self-defense courses for flight attendants. The program was originally put in place in 2004 in response to the 9/11 attacks, and the initiative’s popularity eventually waned, he said.
The free four-hour classes are offered to flight attendants at 24 locations around the country and focus on defense and de-escalation techniques, the spokesman said.
Limiting the sale of alcohol on board — which some say has fueled the violence — is also catching on, with multiple airlines banning the drink cart, Mr. Baldanza said.
In response to more than 3,000 violent incidents already this year, the FAA on July 13 announced a new zero-tolerance policy, saying it will “pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates or interferes with airline crewmembers.” The agency said it has historically addressed unruly passenger incidents using a variety of methods ranging from warnings and counseling to civil penalties.
The flight attendants union says the FAA must do more, as 71% of attendants who filed incident reports with airline management received no follow-up, and a majority did not observe efforts by their employers to address the rise in unruly passengers, according to the union’s survey.
“This survey confirms what we all know; the vitriol, verbal and physical abuse from a small group of passengers is completely out of control and is putting other passengers and flight crew at risk,” union President Sara Nelson said in a statement.
“This is not just about masks as some have attempted to claim. There is a lot more going on here and the solutions require a series of actions in coordination across aviation.”