Four Reasons In-Flight Airline Incidents Are Increasing
Passengers behaving badly onboard used to mostly be about smoking in the restroom, talking back to a flight attendant, or a scuffle among passengers over mixed up seats. But this year, airlines have seen a dramatic increase in in-flight passenger incidents and these have gotten increasingly violent and dangerous. Through May 2021, about 2,500 such incidents have been recorded, and those categorized as “unruly” reached 394, compared with well under 200 for each full year of 2019 and 2020. A Southwest Airlines LUV flight attendant lost two teeth in one battle. Some airlines are postponing a return to selling alcohol onboard in order to reduce a potential accelerant to such behavior.
It would be appealing to some to chalk this up to the pandemic or a post-Donald Trump reaction, but there are more reasons for this increase and airlines are having to adjust to this kind of behavior, train for it, and help their in-flight crews and behaving passengers stay safe. Here are four reasons why this is happening, and as a result this problem will not go away quickly:
Fewer Frequent Travelers Onboard
Businesses have largely avoided travel since the pandemic began, opting instead for video conferencing. This has created a population onboard airplanes that are less used to the “rules of the road” and in some cases haven’t flown in a long time. The TSA has seen an increase in guns being carried through check-points, and they attribute this to people not understanding the rules about carrying guns onboard. On the Airlines Confidential podcast that I co-host, an increasing number of listener questions are related to why they are charged for water onboard, or baggage fees, or things that have been common in the industry for at least 10 years. With more low-experienced travelers choosing to fly today, this means more likelihood for misunderstanding of what is required, or normal. Airlines that have traditionally have carried a lot of frequent-traveling business customers may be least prepared for this since they are not used to so many price-sensitive customers onboard.
Inconsistent And Changing Mask Rules
Airlines, beginning with JetBlue, pro-actively made masks required onboard early in the pandemic. Later, this became a Federal mandate and this mandate was recently extended through mid-September. Yet, in May, the CDC stated that vaccinated people do not need masks except in crowded places. Many travelers, especially if they haven’t flown in a while, don’t realize or comprehend that while they don’t need a mask in the grocery store, they do in the airport and in the airplane. Of the 2,500 incidents so far this year, a large majority have been related to masks. Of the over 3,000 people banned from flying by airlines, many are because they refused to wear their mask onboard.
Airlines have done a good job explaining the relative safety of the onboard air environment, but this safety also presumes that people are wearing their mask. The Federal mandate protects in-flight crews who can confidently be backed by the law, not only their company’s policy. But this does not change the fact that people who don’t want to wear a mask are increasingly pushing their views in places they don’t have a legal right to do so. While it would be nice to have a simpler “vaccinated, no masks” policy, we are not there yet and shouldn’t expect to be soon. Combined with point one above, this has contributed greatly to the increasingly violent in-flight behavior.
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People Have Pandemic Fatigue
The concept of “pandemic fatigue” is not unique to airlines, but has been documented and discussed as a reaction to over a year of significant restrictions on movement and ability to live what most consider a “normal” life. This fatigue extends to businesses who must deal with customers that don’t follow basic rules meant to protect everyone. In airports and on airplanes, this effect results in rising tensions as both the airline employees and other passengers will turn on customers not behaving properly. In some cases, this has been because a young child will not wear a mask, or someone claims they were eating or drinking for the entire flight, or other complicating factors.
This may be the single largest reason that airlines are seeing more in-flight bad behavior. One of the realities of air travel is that customers have very little control about what is happening to them, and many people get nervous or react negatively to this loss of control. Frequent travelers understand this and deal with it all the time. But others see their “freedom assaulted” or what they see as “rights” violated, and they push the point without understanding the consequences. The pandemic is not over yet, but we are moving in that direction and some think we’re already there.
Violence More Common Everywhere
The biggest societal reason for violence on airplanes may be because we see more violence everywhere, with seemingly no consequences. Daily news headline scenes of people looting stores, burning down buildings, and rioting when they want to make their point. Entertainment in movies and games is often brutal and uses violence to get others to accept their point of view. As violence is normalized in these ways, it is not surprising that this would be transferred into an aircraft cabin. Blame guns, poor schools, poor family structure, inequitable wealth, or anything else, but violence is increasing and airlines are part of society and part of this trend.
As mask requirements eventually end, I expect that air rage incidents will drop since so many relate to mask wearing. But the bigger issues of violence normalization and personal entitlement will continue to keep some people on edge and cause problems when things don’t go their way onboard a flight. Airlines are learning now how to handle this, and banning customers is a good start but not the only needed response. The entire country needs to take a breath!