Disputes over face masks have disrupted thousands of U.S. commercial airline flights since January, according to a News-4 I-Team investigation.
The number of unruly passenger incidents skyrocketed in 2021, increasing exponentially from previous years and fueled primarily by face mask disputes.
In the first six months of the year, the number of disruptions involving passengers on US flights exceeded 3,200. In files released by the Federal Aviation Administration to the I-Team, the agency links at least 2,429 of these incidents related to mask problems.
The total number of incidents this year is already greater than all flight disruptions in the past 15 years together, according to FAA data.
“It’s really shocking,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, “If we stay on this trajectory, we will exceed the number of unruly passenger events in the history of the aviation this year only. “
“People are made to believe that we are in conflict with each other and that the pandemic is a political issue, not a health issue,” Nelson said.
In an incident reported by the FAA, a passenger on a Skywest flight from Denver to Gypsum, Colorado, “repeatedly ignored flight attendants’ instructions to wear face shields; walked through the cabin to the washroom while the seat belt fastened panel was on; and drank alcohol that (the airline) did not serve, which is against FAA regulations.
In another recent incident, the FAA alleges that a southwest passenger on a flight from Dallas to Albuquerque, New Mexico refused to wear a mask and had his face covered by the airline. The agency said: “The passenger threw the mask at the supervisor, punched him in the jaw and still refused to wear the mask when exiting the plane.”
Some of the recent incidents are unrelated to the masks. An FAA report said a passenger departing from Phoenix “became angry when the crew informed passengers that the flight had to return to Phoenix due to adverse weather conditions in Mexico. The passenger began to hit the ceiling of the aircraft.
The agency has recommended at least $ 550,000 in fines against passengers for the 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 tension caused by the pandemic, but also the changing trend of passengers. COVID-19 has dramatically reduced business travel, increasing the percentage of new leisure travelers on flights.
“You are now looking at different types of flyers,” said Halinski, “Business travelers who are experienced flyers aren’t really back yet. “
Alcohol use is often linked to unruly passenger incidents, Team I found, including a series of disruptions before the pandemic.
In a 2020 case prosecuted in federal court in Alexandria, a woman was found guilty of disrupting a flight crew.
The woman has been accused of kicking an air marshal after an argument 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 have phased out alcohol sales during the pandemic, which could have wiped out an even larger spike in in-flight disruptions in 2021. But Nelson said the resumption in alcohol sales could risk further poisoning that. trend of disruptive actions on board aircraft.
An American Airlines spokesperson told the I-Team: “The Americans suspended main cabin alcohol sales at the end of March. We currently plan to resume alcohol sales in the main cabin on September 13th. “
Southwest said it did not have a target date for the resumption of alcohol sales.
Nelson said with a mask warrant still in place for air travel, she was concerned things would get better anytime soon. “This is a real threat, not only to our security but also to our jobs. If everyone thinks airlines are the places where a fight is going to break out, they will stop buying tickets.