Incidents of recalcitrant behavior by plane passengers have soared to unprecedented levels this year, union leader Sara Nelson told CNBC on Friday, the start of Memorial Day holiday weekend.
“This is an environment we haven’t seen before, and we can’t wait for it to be over,” the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president said on Squawk Box.
The behavior has become “total nuts,” added Nelson, whose union represents around 50,000 flight attendants on more than a dozen airlines. “It’s a constant combative attitude. … It has to stop.”
Nelson’s comments follow a recent violent confrontation in which a Southwest Airlines flight attendant sustained facial injuries and lost two teeth. In a statement to NBC News earlier this week, Southwest said the passenger “repeatedly ignored normal in-flight instructions and became verbally and physically abusive upon landing”.
A 28-year-old woman was charged with battery crime in the incident, which took place on a flight from Sacramento to San Diego.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday that it has received around 2,500 reports of recalcitrant passenger behavior since Jan. 1, of which about three-quarters related to non-compliance with the federal face mask mandate instituted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s more than 20 times higher than what is typically recorded in a full year, Nelson told CNBC. She noted the role masks play in the wave and expressed disappointment that health protocols on airplanes are viewed as a “political issue”.
The state mask requirement is on the books through September 14, and the FAA intends to maintain its zero-tolerance policy on passenger disruption for as long as the mandate holds.
While air travel has increased in recent months as more and more Covid vaccinations are available, TSA checkpoint data shows that travel is still well below 2019 levels.
“When flight attendants see a conflict on the plane, we are usually trained to de-escalate. We look for our helpers,” said Nelson. However, she said the passenger mix is different than it was before Covid.
“It’s very difficult when you don’t have people on the plane who fly regularly, who somehow know the program, who are our typical people that we would go to at least to create peer pressure, but also to try to do it to attempt.” Calm these incidents down, “she said.
Nelson said increased messaging about the consequences for passengers acting – like FAA fines – would be helpful. This includes not only messages from the flight captain on board, but also at all airports, she said.
Temporary restrictions on alcohol sales would also be beneficial, Nelson said.
“Often times these events are made worse by alcohol, so we have asked the government and airlines to ensure they are not currently selling alcohol as this only adds to the problem that is clearly out of control.”