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Travelers and Airlines Grapple With Unruly Passengers

What to do if there's bad behavior in the air

Front view of aircraft in flight

AlexeyPetrov/Getty Images

En español | In a year that has seen increasingly outrageous behavior from airline passengers, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by what happened on Frontier Airlines Flight 2239 from Philadelphia to Miami.

On July 31, 22-year-old Maxwell Wilkinson Berry spilled a drink on his clothes. He retreated to the restroom, only to return without a shirt. A flight attendant helped him retrieve a clean top from his luggage, but then he allegedly groped her and one of her colleagues. When confronted, he bragged about his parents’ wealth and swung a fist at a male flight attendant. Then, as millions have seen on a viral expletive-filled video, fellow passengers helped restrain Berry as airline employees duct-taped him to his seat, where he remained until his arrest on the ground.​​

So much for the friendly skies.

It was only the latest example of bad behavior from airline passengers. Every week, it seems, brings a new report of an outrageous and dangerous incident above. Earlier this year, a customer punched a Southwest Airlines flight attendant — knocking out two of her teeth. On a JetBlue flight, a traveler threw an empty alcohol bottle and food, and hit an airline employee.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has received 4,724 complaints about passenger behavior this year (as of Oct. 12). They come as the agency has adopted a zero tolerance policy toward flight disruptions. The FAA announced in August that it has proposed $531,545 in fines against 34 particularly egregious travelers who flew between January and May, bringing the total amount of proposed civil penalties in 2021 to $1 million.

The federal agency has even gone as far as to tweet warnings and release memes — pictures with text designed to easily share on social media — urging passengers to behave.

One shows an elderly woman in a cockpit, raising a finger in admonishment. “Don't embarrass me. I raised you better than to act that way,” it says. “The FAA has zero tolerance for not following crew instructions.” Another shows a picture of a pickup. “You could have spent $35,000 on a brand new truck. But instead you are paying a fine because you punched a flight attendant.”

Amusing, perhaps. But the problem is serious. In July, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA reported that more than 85 percent of its members had encountered bad behavior from passengers this year, based on a survey of nearly 5,000 members. And almost 1 in 5 have been physically threatened.

It's been so bad, that Congress is trying to address the problem: Last month, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a three-hour hearing on increased incidents of air rage where lawmakers and industry representatives such as Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president Sara Nelson called for more aggressive prosecution of disruptive or violent passengers. They also discussed installing additional barriers to prevent unruly people from entering the cockpit, increased self-defense training for flight attendants, and other measures. Delta Airlines has proposed establishing a federal “no-fly” list for offending passengers.

What in the world is going on?

Mask-related conflicts, too much alcohol

Noncompliance with the federal mask mandate seems to be fueling many of the problems. The FAA notes that the majority of the cases involve conflicts over the mask requirement. On an April 12 JetBlue Airways flight from Boston to Orlando, for instance, a woman refused to comply with the face-mask mandate, shouted obscenities at the flight crew and, after a seated passenger objected to being bumped into, punched the passenger in the face.

Nick Ewen, a senior editor at The Points Guy travel advice website, notes the recent high numbers of rescheduled and canceled flights, amplifying passenger frustration.

Many of the cases involve alcohol, which has led some airlines, including Southwest and American, to temporarily suspend or limit alcohol service in economy class for domestic flights. American recently extended its ban to Jan. 18 just after the federal government extended its mask mandate for commercial travel to the same date.


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Several of the alcohol-related cases have involved passengers bringing aboard their own alcoholic drinks, which is prohibited by FAA regulations. In other cases, passengers have been overserved in the airport and already are intoxicated when they board the plane. “There's no question that alcohol has played a role in these incidents. If someone has a few drinks on the ground and a few more on the plane, they lose the ability to stop themselves,” Ewen says.

Gail Saltz, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell School of Medicine and host of the How Can I Help? podcast from iHeartRadio, says she's not surprised by the rise of unruly passengers.

"People are feeling super taxed and fearful,” she says. “It's a potentially combustible situation in a small, enclosed space where you can't do what you want, and you can't leave the scene."

It's easy, she notes, to get angry at a fellow passenger who's not wearing their mask properly. And that can quickly escalate. Adding to the problem is a general deterioration in public behavior, which she believes has been fueled by the combative political environment. Saltz says she has even noticed the change in hospitals.

"Patients are being belligerent and screaming at doctors and cursing. That didn't really happen before. That's really happening now. We've been desensitized to the inappropriateness of that."

She says it helps to recognize that we're all under stress, and to avoid adding to a charged situation.

It's also important to keep perspective on the problem, urges Ewen. “There are millions of passengers flying every single day, and thousands of planes talking off. The vast, vast majority are taking off and landing without any issues."

What to do if there's trouble on your flight

  • As a rule, experts and the airlines urge passengers to let flight attendants handle any problems. “Do everything possible to stay out of it. You are not responsible for what others are doing, and the last thing you want to do is become potentially part of an altercation,” Ewen says. “The flight could be diverted and both you and the offending passenger could be impacted. It's a very, very easy way to ruin your trip."
  • Follow directions of airline staff. If you don't comply, you may be fined.
  • If the passenger next to you is getting upset, don't enflame the situation, Saltz says. Try to use empathetic language. “Rather than reacting with confrontation in a situation you can't leave, simply saying ‘I'm sorry you feel angry’ can defuse the situation."
  • Avoid alcohol before or on your flight, which can cloud your thinking and fuel outbursts. “It will not help you, but it could hurt you,” Saltz says.
  • If you feel your temper rising, try taking deep paced breaths, or focus on relaxing your muscles, Saltz says. “When you're super angry, it's hard to use your judgment and think rationally,” she says. “Relaxing your body hopefully relaxes your mind. You, unfortunately, can't leave the scene, but you can go a little more into your own body."
  • Finally, Ewen urges passengers to follow the Golden Rule. “A little grace goes a long way, in all parts of life, but especially when you're in a metal tube high up in the sky."

Virginia native Larry Bleiberg is president of the Society of American Travel Writers, a frequent contributor to BBC Travel, and the creator of CivilRightsTravel.com

Editor's note: This article was originally published on August 25, 2021. It's been updated to reflect new information. 

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