Back in July 2020, when the pandemic was still raging around the country, the Association of Flight Attendants called on the Federal Aviation Administration to mandate masks be worn by passengers on commercial flights. https://bit.ly/3yGZqgm The AFA called the FAA’s failure to act “absurd,” and it was. One can easily imagine that the FAA was, like many other federal agencies, intimidated by Donald Trump and his overt resistance to admitting the seriousness of the pandemic which (despite his assurances it was under control and would soon disappear “like magic”) has been responsible for the deaths of what is approaching 600,000 Americans.
Frankly, madam/sir/whomever, I really don’t give a damn about your “rights” and your claim to “freedom” to put others at risk. Air travel has proved to be relatively COVID-risk- free, and the widespread implementation of vaccinations is making it more so.
Nevertheless, many remain vulnerable and while the federal mandate is now at long last in place, enforcement remains a problem. The union president noted that while airline crews were doing better in protecting themselves with masks, some customers continue to resist. Threatened bans on future travel were insufficient deterrents. Flight attendants were subjected to verbal abuse and even physical attacks, for which, apparently, the airline employees are left to their personal legal remedies.
Most recently, it was reported that a Southwest Airlines flight attendant was attacked by a passenger and lost two teeth, among other injuries. https://bit.ly/3hYwbjb Once again the president of the local flight attendants union sent a letter to the airline’s CEO calling for more aggressive action, since this was “just one of many occurrences.” The letter said,
Today’s traveling environment requires a new level of firmness in both tone and direction to ensure proper control in the cabin of our aircraft as the attitudes and behaviors of the flying public have, unfortunately, declined.
Part of the issue is, as the union noted, “Oftentimes, appropriate actions to maintain a safe environment have been misconstrued as being unkind or inhospitable. As alcohol sales are added back into this already volatile environment….” Airline reluctance to engage passengers aggressively may be particularly affected now that the pandemic appears to be receding and national policy is opening the door to increase travel. Pent-up demand for travel is very strong, so a near-term major increase in both travel and incidents may be in the offing. Airlines are likely concerned about any action that will be seen as off-putting by some passengers.
If so, that’s no excuse for inaction. The union letter noted there were 477 incidents on Southwest Airlines alone in the five week period ended May 15. The total incident count nationally must therefore have been in the thousands. This is not just a Southwest Airlines problem. According to USAToday,
The FAA has taken notice of a spike in passengers behaving badly, adopting a zero-tolerance policy in January and extending it in Marchso it’s in place throughout the pandemic.
Since Jan. 1, the agency said it had received approximately 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, including about 1,900 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal facemask mandate.
The agency has proposed hundreds of thousands of fines, including $258,250 so far in May.
That’s all well and good, but likely more must be done to stop the escalating attacks on flight attendants working to keep everyone safe in flight.
The union letter asked for three steps:
- Better inform passengers that misbehaving could land them on Southwest’s restricted travelers list and result in potential fines, criminal charges and possible imprisonment: “The flying public needs to understand that egregious behavior will result in being banned from flying with Southwest Airlines.”
- Be consistent in policies: “No passenger should be removed from one flight only to be permitted to board the very next Southwest Airlines flight after a noncompliance incident. We ask that you take a strong stance to ensure that unruly passengers are not welcome to travel with us. Period. Full stop.”
- Demand the U.S. government increase the number of federal air marshals on flights and request that they “get involved and take action” when crew members are threatened.
Those steps are all good, but I believe more is required. A number of possibilities come to mind.
- Give each boarding adult passenger a card that states unequivocally the mask and other pandemic-related rules, that these rules are requirements of federal law and/or airline policy and not subject to discussion or debate and will be enforced strictly throughout the flight. Failure to comply will result in arrest at the next stop.
- Anyone physically attacking a flight attendant will be sued on behalf of the attendant by the employing airline. Not may but will. For serious actual and punitive damages. Count on it.
- Any person physically attacking a flight attendant will be, not may be, will be banned for life from flying on that airline.
- The federal government should add a new policy that if a passenger is found guilty and/or liable for assaulting a flight attendant or other crew, other airlines will be notified of the identity of that passenger, so they can take whatever action they want to take in the circumstances. Such passengers are clearly unsafe for those around them, so safety considerations warrant such disclosures.
In short, adults will be expected to act like adults. If you can’t comply, don’t fly. If you do fly and you don’t comply, you will, not may, face severe consequences, guaranteed.
This will seem harsh to some and downright un-American to others. Too bad. It is intolerable and unconscionable that flight attendants should be subjected to the reported abuses by inconsiderate and violent jerks who think the laws and regulations should not apply to them. There is no doubt that flying commercially involves a degree of regimentation. This is done for the safety and comfort of everyone involved, not just the few who think they are above the law. This is not new.
If the union and my reforms are implemented, it seems most likely that violent incidents in air travel will decline swiftly and significantly. With any luck, in the slightly distant future, the masking rules may be relaxed. Until then, it’s time for the airlines and the government to act decisively to restore consumer confidence in air travel and to protect the people who are in place to protect the rest of us.