Nearly one in five flight attendants has been in a physical altercation with unruly passengers this year.
In a survey of 5,000 flight attendants by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union, 17% reported experiencing a physical incident in the first half of 2021.
More than 85% of respondents said they had dealt with unruly passengers this year, and 61% of flight attendants said they heard racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs during altercations.
“This survey confirms what we all know, the vitriol, verbal and physical abuse from a small group of passengers is completely out of control, and is putting other passengers and flight crew at risk,” said Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA. The union is asking for more support from federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and the Federal Aviation Administration.
“It is time to make the FAA ‘zero tolerance’ policy permanent, the Department of Justice to utilize existing statute to conduct criminal prosecution, and implement a series of actions proposed by our union to keep problems on the ground and respond effectively in the event of incidents,” Nelson said.
The AFA survey found 71% of flight attendants who filed incident reports received no follow-up and a majority “did not observe efforts to address the rise in unruly passengers by their employers.”
About 75% of reports of aggressive passengers involved disputes over masks, the FAA said. President Joe Biden mandated Americans wear masks while flying soon after taking office.
But Nelson said “this is not just about masks as some have attempted to claim. There is a lot more going on here and the solutions require a series of actions in coordination across aviation.”
Several flight attendants said their mental health has deteriorated due to the increase in passenger aggression. A Harvard psychologist told Insider’s Avery Hartmans the aggression stems from the fear and anxiety COVID-19 placed on Americans the past year and a half.
“This is not a ‘new normal’ we are willing to accept,” said Nelson, the union president. “We will be sharing survey findings with FAA, DOT, TSA, and FBI to help more fully identify the problems and our union’s proposed actions to affect positive change.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has warned Elon Musk’s SpaceX that it could order the company to take down its new rocket-assembly tower at its launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, Reuters reported.
An FAA environmental review of the Boca Chica launch site including SpaceX’s proposed Super Heavy rocket and tower is still underway and therefore “the company is building the tower at its own risk,” an FAA spokesperson told Insider.
The FAA sent a letter to SpaceX in May saying that work to build one of its proposed towers “may complicate the ongoing environmental review process for the Starship/Super Heavy Launch Vehicle Program,” Reuters said. The FAA needs to complete its review before SpaceX can obtain a launch license for the Boca Chica site.
“It is possible that changes would have to be made at the launch site, including to the integration towers to mitigate significant impacts,” the FAA letter said, per Reuters. The FAA added that it had only learned that the integration tower was being built “based on publicly available video footage.”
The FAA said SpaceX told it in May that it doesn’t think the review is necessary because it plans to use the launch tower “for production, research, and development purposes and not for FAA-licensed or permitted launches,” per Reuters’ report.
But the FAA said that SpaceX documentation “indicates otherwise,” including one document saying that the towers would be used to integrate the Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle, the report said.
The FAA had completed an environmental review of the Boca Chica site in 2014 but it told SpaceX in the May letter that the “480-foot-tall integration tower is substantially taller than the water tower and lightning towers” it had previously assessed.
SpaceX and the FAA did not immediately respond to Insider’s requests for comment.
This is the latest in a series of clashes between SpaceX and the FAA.
As part of the agency’s environmental assessments, SpaceX needs to ensure that the Starship-Super Heavy system won’t harm nearby wildlife or ecosystems around its Boca Chica launch pad. Without FAA approval and a launch license, SpaceX’s first Starship orbit mission could be delayed, a source told CNN in June.
Musk blasted the agency in February for canceling SpaceX’s Starship flight following a reported launch license violation, and claimed that “humanity will never get to Mars” under new FAA rules.
The issue is “near the nose on certain 787 Dreamliners in the company’s inventory of undelivered airplanes,” The FAA said. The problem was discovered during an inspection of Boeing’s 787 manufacturing, the administration said.
“Although the issue poses no immediate threat to flight safety, Boeing has committed to fix these airplanes before resuming deliveries,” the FAA added.
The air regulators said it “will determine whether similar modifications should be made on 787s already in commercial service” after a review of data.
Boeing declined to comment to Reuters. The airplane firm has around 100 undelivered 787s in inventory.
Boeing suspended deliveries of the 787 in May after the FAA raised concerns about its proposed inspection method. The administration said it was “waiting for additional data from Boeing before determining whether the company’s solution meets safety regulations.”
In September, the FAA said it was investigating manufacturing flaws involving some 787 Dreamliners. Boeing said in August airlines operating its 787 Dreamliners removed eight jets from service because of two separate manufacturing issues.
Hundreds of flights were delayed, canceled, or diverted Saturday evening after a water leak at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, according to the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration.
The airport described the situation as a “minor water leak” in its main control tower, but the impact was significant – nearly 300 of the scheduled arrivals on Saturday evening were reported either delayed or diverted.
“Operations at this facility, combined with area weather, require more spacing between aircraft,” the airport said in a tweet. “As such, the FAA is holding most flights destined for JFK from departing.”
The airport warned in a second tweet that the airport remains open, “however as a result of this, coupled with regional weather conditions, customers may experience residual delays.”
The FAA told Insider in a statement that air traffic controllers reported a water leak in the tower’s ceiling earlier on Saturday and relocated to an alternate tower, causing the FAA to “briefly” slow departures and arrivals.
The FAA said controllers returned to the original tower later Saturday evening and resumed normal operations.
The disruption occurred in the middle of the Fourth of July weekend, which was expected to be the busiest weekend for travel since the start of the pandemic. AAA estimated that some 3.7 million Americans will fly this weekend – a 164% increase from last year.
The Transportation Security Administration also announced that it screened a whopping 2.1 million people at airport security checkpoints on July 1 alone, surpassing even 2019’s volume.
SpaceX’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, said the company is “shooting for July” for its first Starship rocket orbit launch, SpaceNews reported.
Speaking at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference on Friday, Shotwell said: “I’m hoping we make it, but we all know that this is difficult.”
She added: “We are really on the cusp of flying that system, or at least attempting the first orbital flight of that system, really in the very near term.”
The orbital test of the Starship rocket, which is expected to last around 90 minutes, is set to launch from South Texas and splash down off the coast of Hawaii, according to the company’s FCC filing in May, as reported by Insider’s Kate Duffy.
SpaceX hasn’t yet received the regulatory approvals needed for such a launch, however.
In June, a source told CNN that the company may have to delay its orbital mission scheduled for July 1, because of ongoing assessments of wildlife and ecosystems around the launch area.
The regulatory reviews, which needed to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, would grant SpaceX a launch license, the source added.
As it stands, SpaceX’s existing license only covers suborbital flights of the Starship rocket, per Space News.
The reviews need to ensure that the Starship-Super Heavy system won’t damage nearby wildlife or ecosystems around its launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas – which wouldn’t be processed in time for an early July launch, Insider previously reported.
Shotwell had made no reference to the licensing and environmental review process at the conference, Space News reported. In her later remarks, she said: “I never want to predict dates because we’ll still in development, but very soon.”
Flight attendants will get self-defense training from July to stop violent passengers assaulting staff, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced in a Thursday press release.
The voluntary training, led by federal air marshals, was paused during the pandemic, but the TSA said it was bringing the classes back to “deter assaults against officers and flight crew.”
Flight attendants told Insider earlier in June that they felt burnt out from dealing with aggressive passengers as travel bounced back.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has so far reported more than 3,000 incidents of unruly passenger behavior in 2021, most involving travelers refusing to comply with the federal mask mandate.
The FAA has opened 487 investigations into passenger incidents – more than triple the number from 2019, before the pandemic started, and the highest number since the agency started listing its investigations in 1995.
The TSA said passengers had also assaulted security staff, noting two separate cases this month where it said TSA airport officers were attacked. In one incident, a traveller bit two officers and faces a $13,910 civil fine, the TSA said.
The TSA said in the press release that it may “pursue criminal charges and a civil penalty up to the maximum allowable by law” for unruly passengers.
Airports welcomed 2.1 million air passengers on June 20, up from 590,456 for the same day in 2020, and the highest number since March 7 last year, according to TSA data.
The airline industry may soon move toward promoting more inclusive language in an effort to increase diversity.
On Wednesday, a Federal Aviation Administration advisory committee released a report recommending that airlines shift toward more gender neutral language by removing words like “Airman” and “Cockpit” from their lexicon.
The FAA group recommended airlines replace “airman” with “aviator” and “cockpit” with “flight deck.” It also said “unmanned aerial system” should become “unscrewed aerial system” or “drone system,” to name a few recommendations.
“Research shows that the utilization of general-neutral language can lead to a more inclusive environment that draws more people to the industry and helps keep them there,” the committee said in its report.
The move would mirror changes that other organizations have made to be more inclusive toward women. In 2006, NASA decided that all terminology used in the space program would be gender neutral.
The recommendation from the FAA’s drone advisory committee comes as a result of a push from the Biden administration for more equity in aviation – an industry that has been primarily dominated by white men. While many women serve as flight attendants, there are very few female or minority pilots and flight engineers. To date, about 94% of airline pilots and flight engineers are white men, according to data from US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The new terminology is one step toward addressing decades of sexism in the aviation industry
In the past, the industry has benefited from the sexualization of women. In the 1950s through 1960s, flight attendants – called stewardesses at the time – were hired based on looks and were required to be unmarried, Axios reports. Most flight attendants at the time were forced to retire by the age of 35, according to the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
Some airlines became known for their stewardesses and even used them to advertise in the 60s. Braniff International Airways’ slogan was “Does your wife know you’re flying with us?” While Pan Am asked: “How do you like your stewardesses?”
By the 70s, many airlines had flight attendants donning hot pants and go-go boots. National Airlines spent $9.5 million on a 1971 campaign that read “I’m Cheryl. Fly Me.” The company later expanded the ads to include “I’m going to fly you as you’ve never been flown before” and claimed it saw a 23% jump in bookings.
In the 80s, the industry began to gradually shift away from stringent physical requirements for flight attendants, as well as the sexual advertising schemes. Though, the Association of Flight Attendants notes women in the industry have continued to struggle with representation, as well as pay – the median annual wage for pilots is nearly double a flight attendant’s salary, according to federal data.
When Nas Lewis, a Chicago-based flight attendant, went to cut off an aggressive, intoxicated passenger from drinking more alcohol, he told her: “If I had a Black Lives Matter shirt on, this wouldn’t be a problem.”
Lewis, who is a woman of color, was taken aback and said she found the situation emotionally abusive. The aggression later escalated to where Lewis had to call the police to remove the passenger from the aircraft.
Flight attendants across the country are grappling with the rise in passenger aggression and violence on aircrafts over the last few months. Since January 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration has received 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, most of which involve travelers refusing to comply with the federal mask mandate.
The agency started keeping track of unruly passenger reports last year after aggression over mask compliance rose, NPR reported. FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor told the outlet the number of reports are “significantly higher” than in the past.
Seven flight attendants from major US carriers told Insider they had experienced increased aggression from passengers as travel rebounds in the US. Though some of the sources for this story requested to be anonymous and not share the name of their employer so they could speak without fear of retaliation, Insider confirmed their identities and proof of employment. All flight attendants said their mental health has suffered as a result of the aggression.
A Los Angeles-based flight attendant of 29 years said she has never seen anything like the current level of aggression at any other time in her career.
“It is truly unprecedented,” she said.
Flight attendants worry they are facing a mental health crisis due to rising tensions between passengers and crew.
Lewis is the founder of th|AIR|apy, a non-profit dedicated to helping flight attendants manage their mental health.
She launched the company in 2019 as a Facebook group when she felt overwhelmed with the stress of commuting to work and leaving her children during flights, and the group now has 3,000 active members.
Lewis told Insider she’s seen a rise in activity in th|AIR|apy support groups over the last three months. Flight attendants have posted photos of themselves crying and told Lewis they had engaged in self-harm and suicide idealization.
Lewis said three flight attendants who were a part of th|AIR|apy died by suicide over the past year.
One New York City-based flight attendant told Insider she used to love her job, even with the ups and downs – but now she feels constantly anxious and worried about whether she’ll have to deal with violent passengers on her next flight.
“Since we’re in a plane up in the sky it’s really scary to feel like you don’t have control of the situation,” she said.
In the last few months, she’s noticed other flight attendants experiencing increased stress. News outlets reported on one off-duty attendant who was taken to the hospital after exhibiting signs of mental illness when he assaulted crew members on a flight.
The flight attendant from New York told Insider that focusing on self-care and mental health has helped her stay positive during this time. She said she stopped drinking as much alcohol, and keeps herself calm by spending time with her coworkers and friends and by going outside.
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Flight attendants attribute passenger aggression to alcohol, mask enforcement, and a divided political climate.
Some airlines have limited alcohol offerings to curb passenger violence.
Southwest announced it would not resume alcohol service until the end of July due to the recent surge in disruptions by passengers. United said it would only offer beer, wine, and hard seltzer on flights longer than 800 miles, and American has suspended alcohol in the main cabin altogether.
Colleen Burns, a representative with the Association of Flight Attendants union, said she’s faced verbal harassment from passengers numerous times, most of the time with people who were “stone cold sober.” But the instance of aggression that shocked her the most was watching a man crawl over an elderly, non-ambulatory woman after complaining she removed her mask to eat.
“I’ve never seen someone treating somebody else with a lack of respect,” Burns told Insider.
“It seems that everybody is angry at everybody 24/7,” she added. “One little thing sets them over the edge, either they’re upset they have to wear the mask or they’re upset someone else isn’t wearing the mask.”
Flight attendants are calling for better protections from airlines and the government
One San Francisco-based flight attendant said before the escalation of tension on board, she had more patience with passengers; she assumed any misbehavior was due to feeling stressed by travel and would not escalate to real violence.
Now, she and the rest of her crew members have lost patience and adopted a “zero tolerance” policy to all aggression.
“I’m very sad that passengers have so much disrespect and disregard for their fellow passengers and crew,” she said. “Flying used to be glamorous and fun. And it still can be – if the attitude of travelers changes.”
Lewis said she’s trying to help as many flight attendants as possible with th|AIR|apy’s resources, but urges airlines to instruct passengers on ways to keep flight attendants safe and offer free, on-demand mental health services for crew members.
Burns commended the FAA, which recently proposed $100,000 in fines for several unruly and dangerous passengers, for investigating instances of violence against flight attendants. The New York City-based flight attendant said she’d love to see the government go further by writing bills that ensure harsher consequences for passengers that misbehave.
Daz, a Las Vegas-based flight attendant, said he has not felt threatened or unprotected by the rise in violence due to learning conflict resolution skills and self-defense training from his airline.
But he said he does feel for the majority of his passengers who are compliant with federal mask regulations that suffer delays when violence and aggression occurs.
“There are still federal regulations that require a mask to be worn at all times on our aircraft,” he told Insider. “Until this is lifted, please just follow the rules.”
A flight attendant for Southwest Airlines was assaulted over the weekend and lost two teeth from the incident, according to a letter a flight-attendant union sent to the company’s CEO, Gary Kelly, on Monday.
The letter, from the Transport Workers Union of America local 556 (TWU), said there have been 477 incidents of violence and unruly behavior on Southwest Airlines flights between April 8 and May 15. Earlier in the month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it had received 2,500 reports of unruly passengers since January.
“This unprecedented number of incidents has reached an intolerable level, with passenger non-compliance events also becoming more aggressive in nature,” the union wrote. “Today’s traveling environment requires a new level of firmness in both tone and direction to ensure proper control in the cabin of our aircraft as the attitudes and behaviors of the flying public have, unfortunately, declined.”
A Southwest Airlines spokesperson confirmed the incident occured on a flight from Sacramento to San Diego on Sunday morning.
“The passenger repeatedly ignored standard in-flight instructions (tray table in upright position, seat belt, etc.) and became verbally and physically abusive upon landing,” the spokesperson said. “We do not condone or tolerate verbal or physical abuse of our Flight Crews, who are responsible for the safety of our passengers.”
The spokesperson told Insider the company is working with the FAA to improve safety measures for flight attendants and passengers. The passenger, who was identified as a 28-year-old woman, was taken into police custody and has been charged with felony battery, USA Today reported.
In its letter, the flight-attendants union called for increased penalties and restrictions for passengers who demonstrate “egregious behavior,” as well as an increase in the number of federal air marshals on flights.
“The last year has brought many unknowns, and much has been out of our control,” the union said. “Please keep your crews in mind and understand the impact of today’s environment on our Crews’ working conditions.”
The Federal Aviation Administration proposed fines of up to $15,000 for five airline passengers accused of interfering with and assaulting flight attendants.
The FAA announced passengers on JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, and Southwest Airlines engaged in aggressive behavior, including hitting, yelling, and shoving, with flight attendants.
One passenger fined $15,000 shoved a flight attendant when the worker had walked down the aisle to document which passengers were not wearing face masks, the FAA said in a release. Another passenger who was fined $10,500 yelled and shouted profanities at a flight attendant after they asked him to put on a face mask.
The agency said it has received 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers since January 2021. About 1,900 of the reports deal with passengers who refused to comply with the federal facemask mandate.
Got a tip? If you are a flight attendant with a story to share, email this reporter at email@example.com.
Flight attendants recently told Insider the pandemic has made passengers more aggressive and less patient due in part to enforcing mask requirements on board.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order on January 21 making face masks mandatory on airlines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said both vaccinated and unvaccinated people must keep masks on in airports and on public transportation.
Passengers who receive a proposed penalty for unruly behavior have 30 days to respond, a FAA spokesperson told Insider.
Within the 30 days, the spokesperson said passengers can pay the full penalty, provide documentation and request a lower penalty, provide documentation showing they are financially unable to pay the fine, provide information indicating the violation did not occur, ask to meet with the FAA to discuss the case, or appeal the judge’s decision to the FAA Administrator.
If passengers do not respond within 30 days, the FAA sends a Final Notice of Proposed Civil Penalty.