The Federal Administration has been dishing out more and hire fines in recent weeks to combat a surge disturbances caused by “unruly” passengers, including incidents involving violence against flight crew.
Many of the disturbances involve passengers pushing back – at times physically – against the federal requirement that they wear face coverings.
Flight crew have been the targets of an increasing number of vicious air rage incidents that put the safety of crew and other travellers at risk.
“It’s wild,” says one flight attendant for ultra-low-cost carrier Allegiant who asked to remain anonymous. “People are really rude and aggressive, and I’m the one that has to deal with it.”
The FAA has been imposing substantial penalties to maintain order.
In January, the regulator moved to a “zero tolerance” policy that imposes fines of up to $35,000 and possible jail time against “unruly passengers”. The order will be in place as long as mask-wearing is mandated.
These kinds of incidents have hit record numbers “largely because passengers fail to listen to flight attendants’ instructions about the new mask policy”, the FAA said last month.
“Historically, we did not track the number of annual unruly passenger reports because the numbers were fairly consistent year to year,” the FAA tells FlightGlobal on 19 May.
According to FAA data, the number of cases involving FAA enforcement action against disruptive passengers in the past 10 years hovered between 91 and 183 annually, totalling more than 1,300 incidents during the period.
“However, we began seeing a significant increase in reports, many related to face mask issues, in late 2020,” the FAA says. “Accordingly, we began tracking the number of unruly passenger reports this year.”
So far in 2021, the agency has “identified potential violations in 370 cases and have initiated enforcement action in 27 cases”, it says. The FAA has published details about 17 of these incidents, with fines totalling more than $330,000.
On 17 May, the US regulator announced the steepest penalty for troublesome behaviour since the policy took effect, slapping a $52,500 fine on a passenger travelling between Honolulu and Seattle in December. The passenger allegedly tried to open the cockpit door, struck a flight attendant in the face and repeatedly refused to comply with crew members’ instructions.
“The passenger then threatened the flight attendant by charging at him as he was trying to restrain the passenger,” the FAA writes. “Flight attendants, with the help of another passenger, placed plastic handcuffs on the disruptive passenger.” The passenger freed himself and assaulted the flight attendant again.
“This is the highest penalty we have proposed since we began our zero-tolerance policy for unruly passengers early this year,” the FAA says. “The maximum penalty per violation is $35,000. However, if we allege a passenger committed multiple violations, the total proposed penalty can be higher.”
Earlier this month, the regulator reported another incident involving a female passenger who “failed to comply with multiple flight attendant instructions to wear a face mask; threw an empty alcohol bottle into the air, almost hitting another passenger; threw food into the air; shouted obscenities at crew members; grabbed a flight attendant’s arm, causing her pain; struck the arm of another flight attendant twice and scratched his hand; and drank alcohol that had not been served to her by the cabin crew”.
The aircraft diverted, and the passenger was hit with a $32,500 fine.
Another passenger travelling from Fort Lauderdale to Las Vegas in February allegedly repeatedly removed his face mask “or wore it improperly”.
“The disturbances that the passenger caused required flight attendants to alert the pilots about his behavior, which distracted them from performing their duties and responsibilities,” the FAA says. The regulator proposed an $18,000 fine against that passenger.
All of the fined passengers have 30 days to respond to the rulings before they become final.
In the past year, the job of enforcing face-mask requirements has fallen to flight attendants.
Most airlines began requiring passenger wear face coverings at the beginning of the pandemic. The US government mandated the same in a rule that took effect on 1 February, and recently extended the rule until 13 September.
Flight attendant union Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) said in April that the FAA’s “zero-tolerance policy” has made enforcing the mask rule easier.
“Having that kind of backing coming from the FAA administrator, and setting a clear tone with the traveling public that they have to take this seriously, made all the difference,” Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA said on an FAA podcast on 23 April.
Last week, the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) modified its travel recommendations, saying vaccinated individuals are safe to return to pre-pandemic activities, and lifting the federal mask-wearing requirements in most cases. It kept the mask mandate in place in aircraft and airports. State and local authorities have also been lifting mask rules.
“You are still required to wear a mask on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within or out of the United States, and in US transportation hubs such as airports and stations,” the FAA said on 14 May.
Meantime, individual flight attendants try to keep the peace as best they can. The Allegiant flight attendant has kicked many passengers off flights in past months for not following the mask rule.
“It’s hard, because I just don’t want any conflict,” the flight attendant says. “I just wish people would respect each other more.”