ATLANTA >> Airline passengers are facing record federal fines for lashing out at 30,000 feet amid conflicts over mask mandates, flight cancellations and because of behaviors fueled by the consumption of alcohol.
The Federal Aviation Administration has slapped dozens of unruly passengers with fines amounting to more than $1 million so far in 2021, the agency announced Thursday. The total has already reached the highest ever in a single year, according to the FAA.
The issue has frustrated flight attendants, airlines and federal authorities — and heightened the tension and stress of flying amid a pandemic — but the prospect of losing flight privileges and hefty fines hasn’t deterred thousands of people reported for disruptive behavior.
Travelers have reportedly punched crew members or other passengers, thrown things at people and tried to break into the cockpit.
“As the number of passengers traveling has increased, so has the number of unruly and unsafe behavior incidents on planes and in airports,” said FAA administrator Steve Dickson.
So far this year, the FAA has fielded 3,889 reports of unruly passengers, including 2,867 related to masks. In response, the agency started 682 investigations in 2021 to date. That’s the most on record dating back to 1995, and marks a sharp increase from 183 in 2020 and 146 in 2019.
“The stress level is higher than we’ve ever seen it. People are simply more frazzled than we’ve ever seen,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, while announcing results of a recent survey on unruly passenger incidents. The stressors of the pandemic and economic uncertainties are contributing factors, she said.
The highest federal fine so far — $52,500 — was levied against a Delta passenger who struck a flight attendant and tried to open a cockpit door on a flight from Honolulu to Seattle on Dec. 23, 2020.
More recent cases include two Delta Connection passengers, one on a flight from Atlanta in March and another in April who refused to comply with the mask mandate and now face fines of $9,000 and $10,500, respectively.
In another incident, a Frontier Airlines passenger on a Jan. 3 flight from Atlanta to New York tried to get into the flight deck by “physically assaulting two flight attendants, threatening to kill one of them, and demanding them to open the door,” according to the FAA. That passenger faces a proposed fine of $30,000.
Those are three of 34 unruly passenger cases amounting to $531,545 in proposed civil penalties announced by the FAA Thursday.
And mask conflicts in the air are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. The Transportation Security Administration, which requires face masks on flights and in airports, this week said it plans to extend the mandate until Jan. 18, 2022, instead of allowing it to expire under the previous end date of Sept. 13.
Key drivers for the increase in incidents and enforcement this year are the FAA’s “zero tolerance” policy for unruly and dangerous behavior on airline flights in place since Jan. 13, and the mask mandate in place since Feb. 1 after an executive order from President Joe Biden.
Airlines have had policies requiring masks on board since mid-2020 and have put thousands of disruptive passengers on their no-fly lists for non-compliance. Atlanta-based Delta has put more than 1,500 travelers on its no-fly list for not complying with its mask policy.
Delta may also terminate passengers’ SkyMiles frequent flier memberships “on the basis of documented abusive behavior.” The airline issued a statement supporting the extension of the federal mask mandate and the FAA’s “continued support of our customers and crews.”
Flight attendants say mask compliance issues are the biggest contributor to unruly passenger behavior, but alcohol, flight disruptions and factors like inability to get assistance at airports because of worker shortages are also driving the incidents. A union survey found that 85 percent of flight attendants said they had dealt with unruly passengers in the first half of this year.
“The atmosphere that this relatively small number of passengers are creating is increasingly hostile,” Nelson said.
Delta earlier this year expanded its offerings of alcoholic drinks on flights. Adult beverages are both a creature comfort for some passengers and a revenue driver for the airline, which sells canned cocktails for $12 each, along with beer and wine.
Some airlines have cut alcohol service on flights, including Southwest Airlines, the second-largest carrier in Atlanta, citing the uptick of industry-wide incidents involving disruptive passengers.
American Airlines also suspended alcohol in the main cabin earlier this year, saying “alcohol can contribute to atypical behavior from customers onboard.”
Dickson, a former Delta executive, asked airport leaders in a letter this month for help to quell the unruly passenger incidents.
“Our investigations show that alcohol often contributes to this unsafe behavior,” Dickson wrote, asking airports to prohibit passengers from carrying open alcohol onboard their flights.
According to an Atlanta airport spokesman, the liquor license for airport concessionaires does not allow customers to carry a drink out of the restaurant.
The FAA is also asking airports to work with local law enforcement to prosecute “egregious cases. While the FAA can levy fines, it does not have the authority to prosecute crimes.
The Atlanta Police Department responds to emergency calls at Hartsfield-Jackson International and “works with federal, state and other local law enforcement agencies and airline partners,” an airport spokesman said in a statement.
FAA UNRULY PASSENGER CASES
More incidents are prompting Federal Aviation Administration investigations and fines, including:
>> “$45,000 against a passenger on a May 24, 2021, JetBlue Airways flight from New York, N.Y., to Orlando, Fla., for allegedly throwing objects, including his carry-on luggage, at other passengers; refusing to stay seated; lying on the floor in the aisle, refusing to get up, and then grabbing a flight attendant by the ankles and putting his head up her skirt.”
>> “$42,000 against a passenger on a May 16, 2021, JetBlue Airways flight from Queens, N.Y., to San Francisco, Calif., for allegedly interfering with crewmembers after failing to comply with the facemask mandate; making non-consensual physical contact with another passenger; throwing a playing card at a passenger and threatening him with physical harm; making stabbing gestures towards certain passengers; and snorting what appeared to be cocaine from a plastic bag, which the cabin crew confiscated. The passenger became increasingly agitated and the crew equipped themselves with flex cuffs and ice mallets to ensure the safety of the flight if his behavior worsened. The flight diverted to Minneapolis, Minn.”
>> “$25,500 against a passenger on a March 11, 2021, Frontier Airlines flight from Orlando, Fla., to Providence, R.I., for allegedly repeatedly kicking the aircraft bulkhead; screaming obscenities at the passenger next to her; locking herself in the lavatory for 30 minutes; yelling obscenities at the flight attendant after they informed her through the lavatory door that the captain turned the fastened seatbelt sign on and she must return to her seat; throwing corn nuts at passengers and shoving both her middle fingers in the flight attendant’s face when they instructed her to stop throwing the nuts. The passenger was issued a ‘red card’ notice, and in response, she again put both her middle fingers in the flight attendant’s face.”
PASSENGERS WHO RECEIVE A PENALTY NOTICE FROM THE FAA CAN:
>> Pay the full penalty.
>> Provide information indicating that the violation did not occur or that the facts do not warrant the amount of penalty proposed.
>> Ask to meet with the FAA to discuss the case.
>> Request a hearing with an administrative law judge, appeal the judge’s decision to the FAA administrator, and appeal the Administrator’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
>> Provide documentation showing they are financially unable to pay the fine.
If a passenger does not pay the fine, the FAA will refer the case to the U.S. Department of Treasury for collection.