Since the beginning of 2021 there has been an alarming uptick in incidents involving unruly passengers on commercial air flights. In a Jan.13 statement (which can be viewed here on YouTube) Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administrator Steven Dickson cited two specific causes of this phenomenon: the obstinate refusal by some air passengers to wear masks in flight, and obnoxious and disruptive behavior spawned or inspired by the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
In the statement, Dickson announced that the problem had become so acute that FAA would be implementing a “zero tolerance” policy in handling such passengers, going forward. Those who decide to demonstrate their contempt for the health and safety of others by refusing to wear masks or otherwise disrupt the activities of flight crews on commercial planes would now face hefty fines of up to $35,000, and possibly imprisonment. In April, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reiterated its policy requiring that air travel passengers wear masks during flights and at airports, and extended the requirement through mid-September.
As reported by Neil Vigdor for the New York Times, it’s become apparent over the past few months that some people still haven’t gotten the message.
Four people are facing nearly $70,000 in civil fines for clashing with airline crews over mask requirements and other safety instructions on recent flights, part of what the Federal Aviation Administration called a “disturbing increase” in the number of unruly passengers who have returned to the skies with the easing of pandemic restrictions.
Even after implementing “zero tolerance,” the FAA has received over 1,300 reports from airlines about unruly passengers, a number roughly equivalent to the number of persons who had enforcement actions taken against them over the entire previous decade.
Vigdor cites several examples, including one woman throwing an empty liquor bottle at a flight attendant and striking one of them to emphasize her displeasure, resulting in the plane returning to its point of origin in the Dominican Republic. That incident prompted the FAA to recommend a fine of $32,500.
The single common thread for most of these incidents has been the requirement of wearing a mask in flight.
As part of the latest round of fines recommended by the F.A.A., the agency said that a male passenger aboard a Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Sacramento on Jan. 26 refused to comply with a flight attendant’s instructions to wear a mask over his nose and mouth. The man became combative and used offensive language when a second flight attendant told him he was required to wear a mask, according to the F.A.A., which said that the passenger hit one of the flight attendants with his bags when he was ordered to leave the plane. Officials recommended a $16,500 fine for the man.
In addition to these fines as imposed by the FAA, the major airlines have also instituted “no-fly” lists as a means of dealing with such people. As reported by the Los Angeles Times:
Delta Air Lines appears to lead all U.S. carriers by putting on its internal no-fly list about 1,200 passengers who refused to wear a mask or became unruly on a plane. It is followed by Frontier Airlines with more than 830, United Airlines with about 750 and Alaska Airlines with 542. American Airlines and Southwest Airlines declined to disclose how many passengers they have banned.
In the wake of the latest high-profile example of this behavior, in which Republican Alaska state senator Lora Reinbold was suspended from flying on Air Alaska for refusing to comply with that airline’s mask policy, Sara Nelson, the president of the Flight Attendant’s Association authored an opinion piece, published on NBCnews.com:
It’s a disappointing and all-too-predictable symptom of how the previous administration made the pandemic response a matter of politics, relatively than mobilizing the general public in shared purpose to take on the biggest disaster relief effort needed in over 100 years. […]
Flight attendants will never tell you that “putting on the oxygen mask is a matter of personal choice.” We understand that clear air turbulence can really throw you up against the ceiling without warning, so we’re not saying, “Some people think seat belts won’t keep you safe, so it’s up to you to decide. wear one.”
While the names of these offenders are usually not provided, it’s clear that they all exhibit the same sense of personal entitlement that prompt so many to obstinately refuse to wear masks in less stringently regulated private settings such as grocery stores and restaurants. They seem to be under the impression that air travel offers a similar opportunity for them to publicly advertise their disregard of the COVID-19 pandemic, the same blithe disregard that was cultivated and encouraged for nearly a year by Donald Trump.
So now that they’re finding themselves stuck with exorbitant fines or even imprisoned for these antics, perhaps they should ask him to bail them out.