Disputes over face masks have disrupted thousands of U.S. commercial airline flights since January, according to an investigation by the News-4 I-Team.
The number of incidents of unruly passengers has skyrocketed in 2021, growing exponentially from prior years and fueled mostly by disputes over face masking.
In just the first six months of the year, the number of disruptions involving passengers on US flights topped 3,200. In records released by the Federal Aviation Administration to the I-Team, the agency connects at least 2,429 of those incidents to face mask issues.
The overall number of incidents this year is already more than all flight disruptions for the last 15 years together, according to FAA data.
“It is really shocking,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “If we stay on this trajectory, we are going to pass the number of unruly passenger events in the history of aviation, just this year.”
“People are led to believe we are at conflict with each other and that the pandemic is a political issue, not a health issue,” Nelson said.
In one incident reported by the FAA, a passenger on a Skywest flight from Denver to Gypsum, Colorado, “Repeatedly ignored flight attendants’ instructions to wear his facemask; walked through the cabin to the lavatory while the fastened seatbelt sign was on; and drank alcohol that (the airline) did not serve, which is against FAA regulations.”
Investigations by the News4 I-Team
In another recent incident, the FAA alleges, a Southwest passenger on a flight from Dallas to Albuquerque, New Mexico refused to wear a mask and was issued a face covering by the airline. The agency said, “The passenger threw the mask at the supervisor, hit him in his jaw, and still refused to wear the mask while exiting the aircraft.”
Some of the recent incidents are not related to masks. An FAA report said a passenger departing Phoenix, “became angry when the crew notified passengers that the flight needed to return to Phoenix due to unfavorable weather in Mexico. The passenger began hitting the ceiling of the aircraft.”
The agency has recommended at least $550,000 in fines against passengers for disruptions caused so far in 2021.
The spike in unruly passenger incidents has several causes, according to former Transportation Security Administration deputy administrator John Halinski. He cites the stress and strain caused by the pandemic, but also the shift in passenger trends. COVID-19 has greatly reduced business travel, increasing the percentage of newer, leisure travelers on flights.
“You are looking at different types of flyers now,” Halinski said, “The business travelers who are experienced flyers really aren’t back yet.”
Alcohol use is often linked to unruly passenger incidents, the I-Team found, including a series of disruptions prior to the pandemic.
In a 2020 case prosecuted in federal court in Alexandria, a woman was found guilty for disrupting a flight crew.
The woman was accused of kicking an air marshal after a dispute over smoking in a bathroom.
Charging documents allege the woman was found with a half-empty bottle of vodka on her flight to Dulles International.
Several airlines eliminated alcohol sales during the pandemic, which might have eliminated an even larger spike in-flight disruptions during 2021. But Nelson said the resumption of alcohol sales could risk further inflaming this trend of disruptive actions aboard planes.
An American Airlines spokesperson told the I-Team, “American suspended alcohol sales in the main cabin in late March. We currently anticipate resuming alcohol sales in the main cabin on September 13.”
Southwest said it did not have a target date of when it would resume alcohol sales.
Nelson said, with a mask mandate still in place for air travel, she worries things will not improve anytime soon. “That’s a real threat, not only to our safety but also to our jobs. If everyone thinks that airlines are places where a brawl is going to break out, they are going to stop buying tickets.”