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Chaos in the skies: Unruly passengers cause brawls, flight diversions for refusing to wear facemasks

By Tanya Lara Published Jun 15, 2021 4:43 pm

If you didn’t know it was 30,000 feet above ground, you’d think it was a bar brawl with one person having one too many drinks and the others venting on a Friday night after a stressful workweek.

Over the weekend, a Delta Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta had to be diverted after an unruly passenger got a hold of the airplane’s PA system and told passengers to sit down as oxygen masks would drop down soon. The crew asked passengers to help subdue him on the floor.

In May, a Southwest flight attendant lost two teeth when he was assaulted by a passenger. Union president Lyn Montgomery said in an interview, “I’ve been in the industry since 1992, and this is the worst ever. People seem to be more angry. When they’re asked to do something, compliance seems to be more difficult.”

Is it frustration over the pandemic, how the world has changed and upended our lives for more than a year now that’s causing passengers to snap and behave like jackasses?

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported in May that incidents of unruly passengers are on the rise. This may be for many reasons, but most often, it’s for refusing to wear a mask.

In July last year, a Pew Research report said that 25% of Americans who had heard of a conspiracy theory that the COVID pandemic was “intentionally planned” believed some truth in it.

In December, an NPR poll found that only 59% of Americans disagreed with the statement that “COVID-19 is no more of a serious threat than the flu.”

More than a year into the pandemic, many airline passengers are still refusing to wear masks and causing flights to be delayed, diverted—and getting themselves thrown off, detained or fined.

Since Jan. 1, 2021, the FAA report said, the agency has received approximately 2,500 reports of unruly passengers, including about 1,900 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal facemask mandate.

Southwest planes alone recorded 477 incidents of “misconduct” by passengers between April 8 and May 15, 2021.

In May, a passenger on Southwest plane, which was about to take off from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, refused to wear a mask, and when he was ordered to get off the plane by the crew, he hit a flight attendant with his luggage.

Also last month, a passenger on a Jetblue flight refused to wear a facemask, threw food around the cabin and hit a flight attendant in the arm, all the while shouting obscenities. The flight was heading to New York from the Dominican Republic.

A passenger on Alaska Airlines also refused to wear a mask and caused the plate to return to the gate.

According to the FAA, in February a female passeger on a JetBlue flight from Miami to Los Angeles assaulted a flight attendant by hitting him with her body and almost pushing him into the lavatory.

The reason? The flight attendant took away some first-class amenities from the passenger, who was seated in the main cabin, that another passenger had given her from the first-class section. The captain diverted the plane to Austin, Texas, where she was removed from the aircraft.

In the same month, a Southwest flight attendant asked a passenger to pull his facemask up so it covered his nose and the passenger refused to comply. The FA explained the CDC and TSA mask requirement, but the passenger said the facemask mandate would not be enforced in Texas. The cabin crew alerted the captain about the passenger’s behavior, and the captain arranged for law enforcement to meet the aircraft when it arrived in Houston.

The FAA said it is strictly enforcing a zero-tolerance policy toward passengers who cause disturbances on flights or fail to obey flight crew instructions in violation of the FAA’s regulations. 

Now, more than pre-pandemic times when we stood in long queues to check in for a flight or at immigration upon arrival, the one thing passengers need to remember is to be patient.