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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.

Go deeper

Jan 13, 2022 - World

Biden administration criticizes China's move to cancel more flights

United Airlines flights are among the latests to be suspended. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The White House criticized China's decision to cancel more flights from the U.S. on Wednesday, saying it was "inconsistent with its obligations under the U.S.-China Air Transport Agreement."

Driving the news: China announced it suspended six flights over the course of the next week due to passengers testing positive for COVID-19, per Reuters.

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

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