It's about time!
This May, a woman was sentenced to 15 months in prison for punching a Southwest flight attendant last year. She was also ordered to pay $33,000 in restitution and banned from flying for three years. The shocking reports of disruptive, violent behavior over America’s skies have dominated the news cycle for the past year-and-a-half. So distressing is this problem that in the Fodor’s Summer Travel Survey, 60% of respondents said that they were worried about in-flight violent behavior.
But passengers can sigh in relief: unruly passenger behavior on flights has gone down as per new data.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there were 2.2 incidents per 10,000 flights reported in the week ending May 22, 2022, a 60% decrease from last year. This statistic was much higher last year—6.9 incidents per 10,000 flights in the week of December 26, 2021.
The New Approach
After a surge in such incidents, the FAA introduced a zero-tolerance policy last year, implementing bigger fines and potential criminal prosecution (the FAA doesn’t criminally charge passengers, but refers cases to the Justice Department). The two largest fines were proposed in April for $81,950 and $77,272 against two violent passengers on flights in July 2021.
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The FAA’s zero-tolerance policy, which has been in effect since January 2021, takes a much stronger approach than its previous handling of such situations with counseling and warnings. In 2021, it proposed fines $5 million in fines against unruly passengers and investigated 1,099 cases (compared to 146 in 2019 and 183 in 2020). Around 34 enforcement actions were initiated. Judicial actions are being taken in cases that were severe.
Airlines have also stepped up to ensure the safety of crew in the air. There were thousands of people put on the no-fly list for endangering crew and interfering with their work and the safety of other passengers. There are talks of a federal no-fly list that will ban disruptive passengers from flying with all U.S. airlines (currently, if an airline puts you on no-fly list, you can fly with another because they don’t share these lists with each other).
Although the cases are seeing a downward trend, the FAA announced that it will make its zero-tolerance policy permanent. The statement said, “The Zero Tolerance policy, combined with the agency’s public awareness campaign, has helped reduce the incident rate more than 60%. The FAA will continue to work with its airline, labor, airport and security and law enforcement partners to continue driving down the number of incidents.”
Masks in the Middle
There were 5,981 incidents of disruptive behavior reported in 2021, and around 71% were mask-related. So, another factor possibly contributing to the plunge is the scrapping of the federal mask mandate, which required people to cover up on public transport, in April by a judge in Florida.
Airline crew were burdened by the extra task of ensuring passengers followed mask mandates. This often led to altercations, fights, and aggression on flights—many crew members were assaulted. Mask guidelines have divided the nation since the beginning of the pandemic—a highly politicized issue in the U.S.—and the extreme opinions were taken to the skies, causing agony to crew members and passengers.
So, the news was welcomed by passengers and airlines. Three U.S. airlines—Delta, American, and United—said that they would allow some banned passengers to fly with them again. This will be a case-by-case review of non-serious offenders.
However, many believed that the decision of throwing out the mask mandate may have been premature, especially since many still can’t get vaccinated (kids and those who are immune-compromised). As per Fodor’s Summer Travel Trend Survey, 73% of respondents said they will continue to wear masks on flights and 65% would actually prefer it if airlines continued the mandate.
It’s Not Over Yet
On the flip side, two weeks after the mask mandate was dropped, there was a 50% rise in infections in TSA agents, according to Forbes.
Currently, COVID-19 infections are surging in the U.S with 94,000 cases every day (which may be underreported, The Guardian says). The U.S. marked a grim milestone in May this year—it reported one million COVID-related deaths.
The mask mandate may be gone, but you can choose to wear a mask in crowded, indoor spaces. The CDC advises passengers to continue wearing masks on planes. The justice department has appealed to a federal court to overturn the ruling of scrapping the mask mandate, so there is still a possibility of its return.