Airlines and regulators turn to eye-poking flight attendants and eye-popping fines amid sharp rise in unruly passenger incidents

As a row of woman look on, a female trainer demonstrates how she gets out of the restraints of someone lying beneath her and holding her down. l
Frontier Airlines flight attendants study self-defense at a training in Denver in 2007.

  • Airlines and federal regulators are scrambling to contain a sudden uptick in unruly passengers on planes.
  • The FAA has received 3,420 “unruly passenger” reports in 2021, and 3,000 weapons have been seized at airports.
  • Under zero-tolerance policy, fines are larger than ever, and some are pushing for federal prosecutions for in-flight assaults.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In undisclosed locations near airports around the country this month, flight attendants are receiving training in aggressive self defense moves that are specially designed for close-quarters.

Flight attendants learn the double-ear slap, the eye-poke, and the groin-kick. They learn tricks to swiftly disarm passengers with sharp weapons, and how to use items readily available aboard a plane for defense.

The moves are designed to de-escalate and quickly subdue passengers because in the words of former trainer Scott Armstrong, “you don’t want to get into a long, drawn-out fight.”

This is, as they say, not a drill. Just last week, the training was famously put to good use, when a female passenger on an American Airlines flight to North Carolina attacked and bit several flight attendants and tried to open the plane’s door mid-flight.

Resourceful flight attendants grabbed a roll of duct-tape, and the woman arrived at her destination, subdued and bound tightly to her chair. It might not have been standard protocol but it was effective and American Airlines later applauded its crew.

It’s not just your imagination; there really has been an extraordinary amount of mayhem in the skies recently.

Last month, an off-duty attendant on a Delta flight to Los Angeles from Atlanta overpowered flight attendants and took charge of the PA system. Passengers had to step in to help subdue him.

A video of a woman attacking a Southwest flight attendant and knocking out two of her teeth before another passenger stepped in to help recently went viral.

The annual flight attendant training, which the Transportation Security Authority (TSA) started in 2004 and paused due to Covid19, resumes at a time of record-breaking reports of delays due to passenger misbehavior on commercial flights.

Three flight attendants restrain fellow flight attendants in a training drill.
A Korean Air flight crew demonstrates a mock anti-terrorist drill ahead of the 2002 World Cup.

During a year when many travelers stayed home due to Covid-19, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it has received 3,420 reports of “unruly passenger” incidents on planes as of July 13. More than three quarters of those incidents have been related to passengers refusing to abide by the federal mask mandate.

With five months left in the year, the average number of reports has already been surpassed roughly threefold, and the FAA has set up a new special task force to investigate.

There are also more firearms being discovered during routine x-ray screenings of carry-on luggage, according to the TSA. As of mid-July, roughly 3,000 weapons have been intercepted so far in 2021, and 85% of them were loaded, the TSA told Insider in an email.

Over the 4th of July weekend, 70 guns were discovered at airport checkpoints. This month, six firearms were seized at airports in Oregon over a single 10-day period, an “astounding” number, according to the TSA. Nationally, the TSA says we are on-trend to double the yearly average for weapons seizures.

Flight attendants are on the front lines, and say the self-defense training is sorely needed.

Sarah Nelson, the president of the International Association for Flight Attendants (AFA), believes the training should be made mandatory. In a town hall posted on YouTube, she said that flight attendants have become “literal punching bags” for the public and that many had left their jobs.

“This should send a message to the public that these events are serious and flight attendants are there to ensure the safety and security of everyone in the plane,” Nelson told the press.

Nelson’s group says it received over 5,000 responses to its fact-finding survey on unruly passengers. According to an AFA spokesperson, more flight attendants than ever have been requesting support and advice from the union.

What can be done?

And yet, in the face of all of this, the options that are available to airlines are limited.

There are not necessarily enough federal air marshals – officials who dress in civilian clothes and are tasked with protecting against the most extreme in-flight scenarios – to be aboard every flight, and their responsibilities have never covered keeping the peace for fellow travelers. For security reasons, the TSA does not disclose the number of federal air marshals or discuss their specific duties or routes.

Regulations say that cabin safety is the responsibility of flight attendants.

A flight attendants with a cart carrying cups and juice boxes smiles at an unseen passenger
An American Airlines flight attendant serves drinks to passengers.

Meanwhile, unruly behavior in the skies has traditionally been met with warnings and relatively small federal fines, as well as bans imposed by individual airlines. When an arrest is made, it is generally by state law enforcement.

Nick Calio, the CEO of Airlines for America, an aviation coalition, wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland in May to urge swift action against unruly passengers, and proposed that the FAA refer the most severe cases to the Justice Department for federal criminal prosecution.

Looking for new ways to shame travelers into exhibiting better behavior, the FAA has broken with its usual protocol and began publishing details about the incidents. The FAA has previously kept this information private but, a spokesperson explained, figured the details might make people think twice before acting out on a plane.

Also, the FAA has chosen to get creative.

The agency has tweeted jocular memes, including one featuring Brad Pitt as part of a public awareness campaign.

In another campaign launched in early July, adorable kids starred in a public service announcement that lampooned poorly-behaved adults. A wise, winsome toddler cautions that grown-ups can go to jail if they keep “doing that stuff.”

“They should know better if they’re, like, adults,” another child says – quite reasonably – while swaying past the screen perched in a swing.

A woman throws a punch at a second woman, who blocks it, during a training.
An Air Tran Airlines flight attendant learns how to deal with a knife-wielding attacker in a self-defense course at the company headquarters in Atlanta, Ga.

Since January, the FAA has had in place a zero-tolerance policy, which did away with warnings and made it possible for fines – which accused passengers can contest in court – to be larger than ever.

When FAA’s chief administrator Steve Dickson announced the policy in January he cited the events of Jan. 6, when supporters of President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, but more recently incidents have been tied to the mask mandate. Passengers deciding to bring alcohol aboard flights was another common thread to the incidents.

That policy will be reviewed in September, when the mask mandate is set to expire, and there is some discussion of making it permanent.

As a result, in-flight misbehavior has become increasingly expensive. Under zero-tolerance, the FAA has handed down a whopping $682,000 in fines year-to-date against 84 passengers, many over $10,000.

The steepest fine proposed so far this year was $52,500 for a Delta Airlines passenger who, last December, tried to open the cockpit door, assaulted a flight attendant, and was subdued and cuffed with the help of passengers. The woman, who was flying from Honolulu to Seattle, then freed herself of the cuffs to assault the flight attendant a second time, and was met by law enforcement upon arrival.

Another fine of $21,500 went to a Frontier Airlines passenger who argued about the mask policy, drank alcohol not served by the airline, and argued with a nearby passenger before striking the passenger in the head.

And a woman in Indianapolis was fined $18,500 because she argued with the captain of the plane, and punched a nearby passenger in the back of the head, while the passenger was holding an infant.

Because of the enormous caseload, the task force has not yet processed fines for the incident involving the flight attendant who lost teeth.

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