• Felicia Sych

Why are airline passengers flying off the handle?


Maxwell Berry is duct taped to his seat after a belligerent outburst. Photo courtesy of Reuters

As the world continues to open due to the COVID-19 vaccine, many people are taking to the skies to travel and regain some sense of normalcy. What is not “normal,” however, is the rise of violence against passengers and airline personnel. Although federal law bars passengers from interfering with flight operations, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported over 5,000 incidents of unruly passengers on aircraft in 2021 alone. Unfortunately, nearly 4,000 of those incidents were passengers refusing to comply with mask mandates. Flight attendant Mitra Amirzadeh told CNN Travel, “I’m dealing with a lot of babysitting . . . The actual children on board behave better than the grown adults do.” The New York Post even compiled a yearly wrap-up of the craziest in-flight incidents from 2021, which included a drunken passenger headbutting a flight attendant and a woman whacking her travel companion with a phone until it exploded.


Former Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza proposed four reasons for the increase in airline incidents: fewer frequent travelers, pandemic fatigue, inconsistent and changing mask rules, and an increase in violence everywhere. Regardless of the reasons, experts suggest incidents are not going away any time soon without more serious enforcement.


The FAA cannot prosecute passengers; it can only impose fines (more than $1 million in fines were issued in 2021), but that has not worked. In October 2021, President Joe Biden called on the Justice Department “to make sure that we deal with the violence on aircraft.” As a result, the FAA and the Department of Justice (DOJ) created an information sharing system that allows the FAA to refer unruly passengers to the DOJ. Since then, only 37 passengers with the most egregious offenses have been referred to the DOJ, but it is unknown how many of them were prosecuted as a result.


Although individual airlines have created internal “no-fly lists,” there is no system that allows airlines to share this information with one another. Someone banned from one airline is not precluded from flying on a different one. While the Federal Bureau of Investigation does maintain its own “no fly list,” the list is limited to people the Bureau deems capable and willing to commit acts of terrorism onboard.


Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian called on Attorney General Merrick Garland, to create a national “no-fly list” for passengers convicted of unruly behavior onboard. Bastian said,This action will help prevent future incidents and serve as a strong symbol of the consequences of not complying with crew member instructions on commercial aircraft.” Although the DOJ did not comment directly on Bastian’s proposal—other than saying it would pass the information to the appropriate individuals—a DOJ spokesman did reiterate the Department’s commitment to holding passengers accountable under federal law. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he is open to the idea of a national “no-fly list” for unruly passengers.


So, what does this mean for most of us who just want to sit and enjoy our uneventful flights? AARP provides some adviceif you are on a flight with an unruly passenger, but to make a meaningful impact on this problem, we will need to listen to the experts—the airline personnel themselves. In the interim, criminal defense attorneys should buckle their seatbelts for a rise in airline-related cases.

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