American Airlines flight attendant Teddy Andrews was working a flight in mid-January when a co-worker came to the back galley on the verge of tears because a passenger wouldn’t put his mask on.
Andrews went to talk to the passenger about the mask requirement and was quickly met with a racist rant.
“He looked at me – and I will not repeat the epithet he used – he said, ‘N-word, I don’t have to listen to a damn thing you say, this is a free country,’ ” Andrews recalled during a congressional hearing on air rage Thursday. “I was completely taken aback. I didn’t know what to say. But he continued, ‘You heard me, N-word boy.’ “
Andrews told the aviation subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure he has lost count of how many times he has been insulted or threatened on a flight since he returned to work a year ago after nearly dying of COVID-19following a work trip in March 2020. He said flight attendants are well trained for medical emergencies, evacuations and security threats but their most “imminent danger” is air rage.
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Andrews and Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, called on the government, airlines and airports to do more to reduce the number of unruly passenger incidents. Proposals included:
proposed fines totaling more than $1 million under its zero-tolerance policy and put out FAA put out a public service announcement with chilling audio of passengers behaving badly. President Joe Biden issued a plea earlier this month to “show some respect” to airline workers and doubled the TSA fines for not wearing a mask on planes and at airports. And American and Southwest decided not to resume in-flight alcohol sales.
“One more air rage event, one more flight attendant who is threatened or assaulted is one too many,” Andrews said.
So far this year, airline crews have reported 4,385 incidents of unruly passenger behavior to the FAA, with nearly three out of four of them mask-related. The FAA has initiated 788 investigations tied to the incidents, four times the number of investigations in 2020. The agency has proposed fines in 162 cases to date.
The AFA calls the numbers “staggering” and Nelson said if they continue at this rate there will be more incidents in 2021 than all previous years combined. In testimony submitted for the hearing, she called it a “scourge of abusive passengers.”
“We cannot accept this as the new normal,” Nelson said.
The Federal Aviation Administration had some positive news on the unruly passenger front Thursday, noting that the rate of reported incidents has fallen about 50% from earlier in the year. The agency said a large part of the decline has happened since it launched a public service campaign warning travelers about the consequences of bad behavior in late August.
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The rate of reported incidents is now six times per 10,000 flights, according to the FAA. That’s still more than twice as high as the end of 2020 and is remains “too high,” the agency said in a news release.
The FAA is planning meetings with airlines, airports and other industry players to share ideas on additional ways to curb the incidents.
“This behavior is from a small percentage of the traveling public,” Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., chair of the aviation subcommittee, said at the hearing. “But, it is disgusting, it is unacceptable and it is a danger to fellow passengers, crew and the entire U.S. aviation system. Congress, the federal government and the aviation industry must work together to protect airline crews, airport staff and the traveling public from passenger outbursts.”
Flights attendants have plenty of ideas on ways to reduce the number of unruly passenger incidents and haven’t been shy about sharing them.
Among the key proposals raised at Thursday’s hearing:
►End sales of to-go alcohol at airports and implement other restrictions on booze.
Chair of the House Committee on Transportation Peter De Fazio said some airports have been touting sales of alcohol to go during the pandemic.
“That is literally encouraging people to break the law: Get a great big to-go cup with four shots in it and take it on the airplane,” he said. “So that needs to end.”
De Fazio said he was having a beer at an unnamed airport recently when another passenger ordered three shots of vodka in a to-go cup, noting it is hard for airline gate agents to know what’s in there.
“How are you going to tell?” he said. “Is it coffee, a soda? What is it?”
Nelson said ending to-go alcohol sales at the airport is the “low hanging fruit” of additional efforts needed to reduce bad behavior.
Christopher Bidwell, senior vice president of safety for Airports Council International in North America, pushed back on suggestions that airport alcohol restrictions are needed. He said FAA figures say 6% of unruly passenger incidents involve alcohol and there is no way to know where the drunk passengers originally got intoxicated.
Bidwell said alcohol to-go sales started before the pandemic and are only offered at a relatively small number of airports. He added that at some airports there is an effort underway between concessionaires and airlines to mark to-go cups containing alcohol to better help gate agents trying to police the policy. He did not name the airports.
►Encourage the U.S. Department of Justice to criminally charge more misbehaving passengers.
“There are many cases that DOJ could take up and we need DOJ to take more more aggressive action,” Nelson said.
The prospect of jail time and publicity about prosecutions, which has repeatedly been recommended, would send a strong message to other passengers, she said.
The DOJ has only taken up one case so far, filing criminal assault charges against a Southwest Airlines passenger in early September. The flight attendants union said the employee lost teeth in the May incident, which went “viral” on social media. Southwest decided against resuming inflight alcohol sales after the incident.
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Incoming Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan, who is due to replace Gary Kelly in February, brought up the case when asked about unruly passenger incidents at a travel industry conference in New York Thursday.
“We’ve had a flight attendant that was punched,” he said at the Skift Global Forum. “Nobody deserves to come to work and have that happen to them so we’re not going to tolerate that.”