Jul 29, 2021 - Economy

In-flight tensions at historic high

Illustration of airplane seat cordoned off by caution tape

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Flight attendants are having to handle hostile passengers at unprecedented rates. 

Why it matters: Travel is rebounding to pre-pandemic levels, but the pandemic is not over

  • Like many other service sector workers, flight attendants are on the front lines of public interactions. As they now need to enforce mask mandates on top of regular safety procedures onboard, they’re also feeling less safe doing their jobs.

By the numbers: More than 85% of 5,000 flight attendants surveyed between June 25 and July 14 said that they’ve had to deal with unruly passengers this year. 

  • Close to 60% said they’ve had to deal with at least five incidents, while 17% said they experienced a physical incident. 
  • Of the total surveyed, 84% said they experienced unruly behavior during flight.

What they’re saying: “Incidents of unruly passengers on aircraft are up so high that if they continue at this rate, we may see more incidents in this one year alone than we've seen in the entire history of aviation,” Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told reporters on a call Thursday.

Enforcing mask mandates and dealing with drunk passengers ranked among the top causes for escalated interactions. 

  • Urination, throwing trash, punching back of seats, name-calling, and following staff off planes were cited as types of passenger abuse. 

And while the number of unruly passengers may be relatively small, Nelson added that the “events on board are exponentially more than they typically are and the atmosphere they’re creating is increasingly hostile.” 

The big picture: “We’ve been led to believe that we’re in conflict with each other in this country,” said Nelson. 

  • “Flight attendants have been called Nazis by cable news personalities … [A]ll of that rhetoric is adding to the conflict and attempting to define flight attendants as being difficult when really they’re just doing their jobs."
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