Incidents involving unruly passengers in the United States are on the decline.
But the good news may end there.
According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, there were about 500 reports of unruly passengers per month on average in 2021. In the first three months of 2022, that number has dropped to around 350 reports per month. according to FAS statistics.
This is progress, especially when you consider that there are much more flights than at the beginning of 2021, when the number of incidents reported reached an all-time high.
However, that’s still a far cry from the number of in-flight outbreaks reported before the pandemic, which CNBC estimates occurred about 10 times a month from 2014 to 2019.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, which tracks flights that depart or arrive in the United States, in 2021 nearly 3 out of 4 reports of rebellious passengers were related to mask-wearing compliance.
For some, not wearing a mask has become both a political statement and a sign of personal autonomy, said Sharona Hoffman, co-director of the Case Western Reserve University School of Law Medical Center.
Many of these people don’t want to be told what to do, and flying is “an environment where they are told what to do – all the time – for hours.”
According to her, rage in a not-so-friendly sky is also a manifestation of anger happening on the ground. For every video of an airline passenger losing it mid-flight, there are others in grocery stories, school board meetings, and banks.
Covid measures added to the stress of flying, Hoffman said. Food, drinks, and snacks were removed at some point, “so everything that used to distract and entertain people was removed,” she said.
Brian Del Monte, president of The Aviation Agency, a marketing company for the aviation industry, agrees that the rise in unruly behavior can be driven by stress.
“However, I’m under a fair amount of stress and somehow I don’t go crazy on a plane, I don’t hit a flight attendant… while 20-30 people are filming it,” he said.
Threatening or interfering with a crew member’s duties can result in fines, a ban on flying, federal criminal charges, and jail time. Since most passengers are armed with video cameras on their phones, there is also the risk of becoming the unwitting star of a viral video, which can lead – and has led – to dismissal from work as well as deportations.
But what is a devastating public hysteria for one person can be an act of gallantry for another, Hoffman said, referring to those who many want to be “mask defenders’ heroes.”
Del Monte of the Aviation Agency said people throw tantrums on flights “because they feel they can… We have a place for people who believe they can do whatever they want, when they want. It’s called prison.”
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Others believe the rules don’t apply to them, Hoffman said, adding that “people used to think they’d get an exemption,” which may have been the case for them with vaccination mandates.
Hoffman said that while there is a lot at stake due to misbehavior on board commercial flights, “people commit crime all the time.”
According to her, most do not think that they will be caught or punished.
They may be right.
Of 1,091 reports of unruly passenger behavior this year, less than 30% were investigated and only 15% resulted in “enforcement action.” according to the FAA. However, this is higher than the 6% of reports that led to enforcement action in 2021, Del Monte said.
“Enforced action” now means the proposed penalties, an FAA spokesman told CNBC. This has included warnings and consultations in the past, but this ended with the FAA’s “zero tolerance” policy, which began in January 2021.
Maximum fines have also increased — from $25,000 to $37,000 per violation — and a single incident can result in multiple violations, according to the FAA.
But that’s not enough, said Del Monte, who said much more needed to be done.
“Clearly, fining these people is not a deterrent,” he said. “Majority [of] they are 300, 3,000, 30,000 or 3 million dollars – it doesn’t matter. They are the evidence of the court.”
According to him, even fewer people are prosecuted. The Federal Aviation Administration, which has no powers to prosecute, said it handed over 37 rebellious passengers to the FBI last November. Later that month, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed U.S. attorneys to prioritize prosecution of federal crimes against commercial aircraft.
Will bad behavior end soon?
Since most of the problems are related to masks, reports of rebellious passengers will likely disappear once mask mandates run out, Del Monte said.
Masks are no longer required on several major European airlines and could end in the United States on April 18 when the federal mandate expires. On the other hand, in Asia, mandates are expected to last longer. There is still little news of unruly pilots in the region, thanks in part to a pre-pandemic mask-wearing culture.
However, even after mandates are lifted, the number of incidents is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels, Del Monte said.
The FAA said it had proposed a $5 million fine for unruly passengers in 2021.
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According to the FAA, about 28% of reports of naughty passengers in the US in 2021 were not related to masks. If mask-related incidents are completely ignored, CNBC estimates that incidents involving unruly passengers increased by about 1,300% last year compared to five years before the pandemic.
The most brutal attacks on board “have nothing to do with masks,” said Sarah Nelson, president of the Flight Attendant Association-CWA. in a statement released February 15 in support of a centralized banned passenger list shared between airlines.
However, according to Del Monte, the problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
“I sincerely doubt … an ignoramus who suddenly becomes an expert in both epidemiology and legality will be comforted by the lack of a mask,” he said. “This person will undoubtedly find some other petty injustice to create the conditions for which he will be fined or jailed.”
In addition, airlines may have to deal with another problem with masks – the “radicalization” of passengers who want mandates to be maintained.
“They can replace those who refuse to wear a mask as being naughty,” he said.