Updated Dec 19, 2021 - Economy

"Make it stop": Flight attendants urge feds to help

Illustration of an airplane's contrail forming a smiley face

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Mandatory self-defense training, an industrywide "no-fly list" for disruptive passengers, and the end of to-go cups for alcohol are the changes airline crews want so they can stop being afraid to go to work.

Why it matters: Flying has become so dangerous for crew members, due to attacks by violent passengers, that airline unions are asking for government help in bringing civility back to the skies.

  • They want to see tougher penalties and a coordinated response to violent behavior that they say puts everyone onboard at risk.
  • If disruptions or defiance of crew instructions keep happening, "we are in jeopardy of missing cues to a coordinated attack or handing tools to those who wish to do us harm," says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
  • "Flight attendants have one message for everyone who touches aviation and the lawmakers charged with oversight of our industry: Make it stop."

Driving the news: Nelson was among the airline industry officials testifying Wednesday at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the impact of federal support for airlines during the COVID pandemic.

Violent incidents contributed to a shortage of workers during highly publicized operational breakdowns that some airlines experienced earlier this year, Nelson testified.

  • As travel rebounded, airlines built pre-pandemic overtime hours into their schedules, she explained, but aviation workers were not as willing to work overtime because of unruly passengers and concerns about COVID.
  • Those problems disappeared after airlines offered overtime bonuses, she noted.
  • "Airline performance was off the charts over the Thanksgiving holiday travel week. There was no operational meltdown."

2021 saw a sharp increase in bad behavior among airline passengers, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration.

  • The FAA reported 5,664 unruly passenger incidents and 4,072 "mask-related incidents" through Dec. 14.
  • The agency initiated 1,030 investigations and 315 "enforcement cases."

Ground workers have also been assaulted, Nelson told lawmakers.

  • They have reported being repeatedly punched in the face, kicked, slammed against doors and counters, and even spat upon by passengers.
  • One reason is the growth of to-go alcohol in airports as a COVID social-distancing strategy, she said.
  • Faster response by police to incidents in the gate area could head off problems in the sky, she added.

What they're saying: "It is a much more difficult work environment for a flight attendant than it was two years ago," Alaska Airlines senior vice president Diana Birkett Rakow, tells Axios. "They didn't become flight attendants so they could be mask police."

  • She blamed the rise in unruly behavior on the stress of the pandemic and the "politicization" of masks and vaccines.

What to watch: The Justice Department recently directed U.S. attorneys to prioritize the prosecution of airline passengers who have committed federal crimes aboard aircraft.

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