Look! Up in the sky: It’s a bird … it’s a plane … it’s an unruly passenger assaulting a flight attendant.
That sums up 2021 for many flight crews across the US, given that last year was the worst on record for the number of unruly passengers. Overall, the Federal Aviation Administration logged a startling 5,981 cases of unruly passenger behavior in 2021, with close to 72% of incidents stemming from mask mandates on planes. As a result, the FAA notes it initiated nearly 1,100 investigations into unruly passengers last year, more than in the previous seven years combined.
The horrible — and, at times, illegal — conduct ranged from verbal abuse to physical attacks. Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, testified before Congress last September that an alarming 61% of the incidents up to that point had involved passengers hurling racist, sexist or homophobic slurs at the flight crew.
Worse, flight crew members have been physically assaulted, such as when a Southwest flight attendant had two teeth knocked out by an angry passenger last May. And it’s not just the flight crews on the plane who are facing bad behavior; airline ground workers at the gate have reported being punched in the face, slammed against doors, verbally abused and spat upon.
We can all debate what’s behind the spike in flight passengers’ disruptive and even violent behavior, although it seems clear to me there’s a political component. I wrote about this issue last June, noting nearly three-quarters of these incidents were related to mask compliance after former President Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans had publicly mocked mask wearing.
In December, Alaska Airlines Senior Vice President Diana Birkett Rakow told Axios she believed the onslaught of unruly behavior could be tied at least in part to the “politicization” of masks and vaccines.
Regardless of the cause, flight crews who are simply doing their jobs so the rest of us can get to our destinations safely should not have to endure verbal and physical abuse.
That’s why a federal “no-fly” list for unruly passengers is long overdue. The data from the past year says it all: It’s past time for the DOJ to ban reckless passengers from commercial flights to send the message that such conduct will not be tolerated.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian has called for the Justice Department to enact a “no-fly” list not once but twice within the past year, most recently on Friday. In a letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland, Bastian explained his hope that this type of punishment “will help prevent future incidents and serve as a strong symbol of the consequences of not complying with crew member instructions on commercial aircraft.”
Bastian first requested a federal “no fly” list for bad behavior last September. And while the DOJ did commit to making it a “priority” to prosecute passengers who “assault, intimidate or threaten violence against flight crews and flight attendants,” there still hasn’t been any movement on a “no-fly” list.
Bastian is 100% correct that such a measure is necessary to truly make a difference in flight safety. Delta has already placed nearly 1,900 people on a company “no-fly” list, but this punishment must be industry-wide in order to better deter this type of misconduct.
The FAA installed a “zero tolerance policy” in January 2021 to protect flight crews from disruptive passengers, skipping over lighter measures like warnings in favor of tougher penalties like stiff fines and jail time.
But the reality is that it is clearly not enough: While the rate of unruly passenger incidents has dropped about 50% since last year’s highs, as of February 1 there were still 323 reports of unruly passengers. According to the FAA, 205 of those reports were related to face mask compliance.
That explains Bastian’s renewed push for a “no-fly” list, which has been echoed by flight attendant union president Nelson. In September, she told Congress that there needs to be a centralized “no-fly” list that would suspend a person’s ability to fly on any airline for a period of time.
While the FAA can fine people and, if the conduct rises to a crime, law enforcement can criminally prosecute those involved, the possibility of an industry-wide flight ban could deter more bad conduct than both of those consequences.
Imagine if the length of time a person could be banned from flying was commensurate to the wrong, just like how our criminal justice system tailors the punishment to fit the crime. Not being able to take a commercial flight into, outside of or within the United States for a significant period of time would likely be reason enough to rethink threatening a flight attendant, especially given how many people need to fly as a component of their work.
The concept of a “no-fly” list isn’t new, and it has been controversial: When used to combat terrorism, the vague qualifications used to create the list led to accusations of abuse, particularly targeting Muslim Americans without cause. But a “no-fly” list for unruly passengers would be more straightforward: Violent or rowdy behavior on a flight in violation of federal law and/or FAA regulations would be grounds for being placed on this list.
There should be, though, a clear and accessible procedure that would allow a person to appeal their inclusion on the list to the DOJ and ultimately the courts.
If we want to make air travel safe for all of us, from passengers to the flight crew, it’s time to step up the punishment for unruly passengers. Perhaps in the future, when stuck on a bus for nine hours instead of sitting on a plane for two, they can reflect on why their actions were so wrong.
A “no-fly” list sends a powerful message to everyone that you either behave civilly on the plane, or be gone. And that’s not just a win for the flight crews, it’s a win for society overall.
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