What US carriers don’t do about it
Letters to Merrick Garland and self-defense lessons weren’t enough to make theft safe again.
Flight AA2694 from Miami to Newark Airport on May 19 was scheduled to depart at 9:25 p.m. It almost didn’t take off at all because a belligerent passenger in his 20s refused to wear a mask.
After twelve repeated explanations of the federal mask mandate, now part of the pre-flight safety briefing, an exasperated flight attendant pleaded with the pilot to remove the youngster from the plane. “I don’t want him on this plane,” she said, clearly in distress. The pilot, a calm and collected Iceman after his prime, stepped in to try to “talk to the kid some common sense.”
Forty minutes of utter confusion later, everyone on board is urged to disembark (likely because physically transporting a single troublemaker off the plane could result in viral videos). At this point, the restless cabin reveals itself. It’s an angry Jersey crowd coming out of their seats with ‘don’t mess with me’ body language and matching tattoos.
A fight almost broke out over my head between men twice my size. Adrenaline rushed through all of us, causing panic in the aisle of the plane. Fortunately, my partner took command and opened up a way for us to go. And I mean run.
Eventually, the offender was escorted off the plane by local police while everyone returned home. Things could have been a lot better, or a lot worse. Either way, resolving the situation should have taken much less time. By now, it’s a far too familiar story.
Unruly means dangerous
So far this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has received approximately 3,100 reports of unruly passenger behavior, including at least 2,350 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal mask mandate.
The non-compliance is, at least in part, fueled by inconsistent application. If everyone is allowed to take off their masks to eat and drink on a flight, what are masks really used for? It is a small question that underlies a large and complex reality. Airlines are facing an unprecedented assault on passengers which the FAA says is not managed by property.
“We have seen an alarming increase in the rate over the last few months, and this is something we need to get on top of,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told ABC News. “It’s something we should all be concerned about.”
Currently, passengers who engage in unsafe behavior in flight face criminal charges, fines of up to $ 35,000, or lifetime bans from certain airlines. “Dangerous behavior” is broadly defined by federal regulations, which state that “no one may assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with a crew member in the performance of their duties on board an operated aircraft. “
American Airlines has many legal safeguards to take punitive action, according to a spokesperson. “We reserve the right not to let customers fly, whether temporarily or permanently, for a number of reasons described in our policy on conditions of carriage”, including:
- Are uncooperative or show the potential to be uncooperative on board
- Present a risk to safety or security
- Attempting to interfere with the flight crew or refusing to obey instructions
They have the stick. They just don’t use it. Of the thousands of incidents reported this year, only 60 actually led to law enforcement cases, according to the FAA. It is nowhere near enough to stop the problem.
As a result, the airlines are asking the Justice Department to step in and help. In a June letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, a coalition of aviation officials, including Airlines for America, called on the Justice Department to prosecute unruly passengers to the fullest extent of the law: “We respectfully request that the Department of Justice fully engage and public prosecute acts of violence on board … We call on the Department to ask federal prosecutors to devote resources to egregious cases.
In other words: it’s not a civil matter, it’s a federal matter. Let’s make it a federal case and invest some money in the problem. We cannot operate that way.
Bad for business
US carriers can’t just write DOJ and hope for the best. You have to fix the problem on the tarmac. Airlines need to quickly identify problem travelers and coordinate with local law enforcement to remove them from planes. Each crew member should know what to do and when because standard operating procedure has been trained in their muscle memory.
Currently, neither Delta nor American Airlines have a specific time horizon written into their policies, which virtually means crew members don’t know how long they should bicker with someone who refuses to wear a mask. . (Delta and American Airlines declined to be interviewed for this article). Maybe it’s because there is nothing good to say. While the crews debate and deliberate, the passengers are held captive and the situation escalates.
Now who wants to become a flight attendant? Post-pandemic, being confined to a small space with many humans for too long seems like a ready-made spark for every loose cannon. Things have gotten so badly that US carriers are faced with a labor shortage problem. American Airlines had to cancel hundreds of flights as customer demand returned.
For its part, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is trying to solve the problem by resuming self-defense training for crew members in early July. At least they recognize the problem. But does anyone really think self-defense classes are going to solve it?
It was supposed to be the big comeback, the resumption of the “hot vax summer” that could justify the government’s bailout of airlines during the pandemic. Now that looks like anything but a cover. It looks like chaos.