NORFOLK, Va. – As travel ramps back up, so does the number of unruly passengers on flights. The number of incidents hit an all-time high this year, with many cases centering around not wanting to wear masks, which is a federal mandate on planes.
Images of disruptive and sometimes violent passengers are causing uneasiness to some boarding their plane.
Virginia Beach resident Keonna Gray was flying to Fort Lauderdale out of the Norfolk International Airport Thursday.
“It is kind of nerve racking because you don't know,” Gray said. “People are a little angry when it comes down to these masks.”
Charlie Braden, the director of market development for the Norfolk Airport Authority, said in early June, a man in his 20s had to be escorted out of the Norfolk International Airport after he refused to wear a mask. Braden added that there have been no incidents of violence against crew members or travelers.
Alexandra Rachiele, 21, said she’s been on quite a few flights since the start of the year.
“I have seen some minor arguments with flight attendants,” she said. “Obviously, there is some risk being on a plane of maybe it escalating a little bit into more of an argument, but that's a risk that you're willing to take if you're going on a flight.”
Airlines have reported 3,509 cases of unruly passengers so far this year. A majority of those incidents – 2,605 cases – are mask-related.
This week alone, the FAA reported 89 new incidents, and seven more case filings are on the way.
Susannah Carr has been a flight attendant for six years and is also spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), which represents multiple airlines.
“I got eye rolls and heavy sighs and the general frustration of don't really want to, or just the passive aggressive, taking off of the mask and leaving it off until we walk by and then requesting to put it back on and they comply,” said Carr.
Carr said her problem passengers haven’t gotten violent, but if they do, she’s ready to fight back.
The TSA is offering self-defense training for crew members this month so they can de-escalate situations and keep people safe on planes.
“We are the last line of defense in the air, so any training that we can have is going to prepare us better for our workday and better to protect our passengers in our care,” Carr said.
The TSA temporarily stopped the training program due to COVID-19 restrictions. During the voluntary, four-hour training, flight crew members learn to identify and deter potential threats, and if needed, apply the self-defense techniques against attackers.
“Through this training program, TSA’s Federal Air Marshals are able to impart their specialized expertise in defending against and deescalating an attack while in an aircraft environment,” said Darby LaJoye, a senior official performing the duties of the TSA administrator. “While it is our hope that flight crew members never have need for these tactics, it is critical to everyone’s safety that they be well-prepared to handle situations as they arise.”
Carr said her airline also offers courses on self-defense and other techniques.
“Unfortunately, with the escalation of passenger incidents, it's more important than ever that our flight attendants feel confident walking onto the aircraft,” she said.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, sent a statement that read:
Flight Attendants are aviation's first responders and last line of defense. Following September 11th, in November 2001, Congress mandated self-defense training as part of flight attendant initial and recurrent training. Some airlines complained of the cost, and before the program could be implemented it was changed to be voluntary training conducted by Air Marshals. This training should be mandatory and repetitive. There is no doubt that the voluntary program is helpful, and we have supported funding to keep it going over the last 20 years. We applaud TSA for restarting the program as unruly passenger incidents hit an all-time high. This should send a message to the public as well that these events are serious and flight attendants are there to ensure and direct the safety and security of everyone in the plane.
According to the FAA, many of the disruptions stem from passengers not wanting to comply with the federal mask mandate.
With the mask mandate and longer airport security lines, traveling has changed over the past 18 months. Carr said many people haven’t flown in a long time and the changes can be stressful.
“Travel can be a stressful experience and that can trigger individuals,” she said. “It's been an incredibly stressful last year and a half. People have been wearing masks. They've lost loved ones. They've been confined to their homes. They've been away from work. It's an incredibly stressful time and it tends to become a catalyst, and something just snaps from time to time. It’s an unfortunate fact of life.”
Traveler Keonna Gray knows flight attendants are just doing their jobs and has advice to those looking to cause trouble in the skies.
“Just comply so that we can get things moving, so that it’s not a big situation and holding everybody up,” Gray said.
According to the FAA, unruly passengers could face fines up to $3,500 and even jail time.
The federal mask mandate is set to expire on September 13. There is no word yet on if the mandate be extended.