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In a year with increasingly outrageous behavior from airline passengers, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by what happened on Delta Airlines Flight 2790 from Tampa, Florida, to Atlanta on Dec. 23.
If you haven’t already seen the viral video of the incident: A woman who’s been identified as Patricia Cornwall stands in the aisle with her mask pulled down, furious after a crew member has asked her to find an empty seat while the beverage cart blocks her path. A riled-up Cornwall tells the man seated next to where she’s standing to “put your [expletive] mask on.” He angrily yells at her to put her own mask on, and shouts, “Sit down, Karen!” (the derogatory term for an unpleasant white woman who feels perpetually wronged). They hurl profanities at each other, and she finally spits on him and hits his face before being pulled away by crew members. Cornwall was reportedly taken into federal custody when the plane landed.
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So much for the friendly skies.
It was only one of the more publicized examples of bad behavior from airline passengers in the past year. Every week, it seems, brings a new report of an outrageous and dangerous incident above. Last month a passenger started a brawl at Miami International Airport after his flight was canceled. During a scuffle with police one of the two men who ended up being arrested reportedly bit one of the officers in the head.
On a recent JetBlue flight from Boston to Puerto Rico, a traveler allegedly tried to storm the cockpit and attempted to choke a flight attendant with his necktie.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says that through Dec. 21 there were 5,779 incidents of such unruly passenger behavior in 2021; more than 4,000 of them were disputes over mask-wearing, which is required on planes and in airports to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA reported in July 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.
The government and airline industry fight back
These incidents come as the agency has adopted a zero tolerance policy toward flight disruptions. The FAA can propose up to $37,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases (up from $25,000 in 2018, when such behavior was relatively rare). It can also lead to jail time.