Flight Attendants detail passenger air rage over masks, safety
Sara Nelson, president of Flight Attendants/CWA, says air rage sequences like the one described in this story are getting more frequent. The FAA, she says, must "develop and enforce stronger airport messaging that wearing a mask and following crewmember instructions are both required and that failure to do so will result in penalties." | AFGE/Flickr

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–When Teddy Andrews, a Charlotte, N.C.-based unionized flight attendant for American Airlines, returned home from a roundtrip flight to Chile at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, he wasn’t feeling so well. And he felt even worse after testing positive and almost dying from the coronavirus.

Andrews, a member of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, an independent union which represents flight attendants at American, told lawmakers he ran a 104.5-degree fever, suffered massive aches, chills, and night sweats, and was admitted to a Charlotte hospital. He was intubated and his blood oxygen levels fell. His 24-year-old daughter was called to his bedside and there was talk of whether DNR forms were needed.

After 10 days in the intensive care unit, Andrews had survived the virus, officially called Covid-19. But then came Andrews’ second coronavirus story, this one in the air.

When Andrews, still weak, returned to flying months later, he wore an anti-virus mask, just like all other aircrew members and passengers are required to wear. But one particularly obnoxious, and possibly drunk, male passenger greeted his “wear a mask” reminder with a particularly ugly incident in a growing phenomenon: Air rage.

“My crew had just completed our service and was collecting trash and performing the required compliance checks,” Andrews told the House Aviation Subcommittee in late September. “My colleague, on the verge of tears, came to the back galley and told me she was having trouble with a passenger who was not wearing a mask” and “deliberately not complying …I offered to help, as any fellow crewmember would.

“The passenger still had his mask off but was not eating or drinking. As I approached him, I asked politely, ‘Sir, would you please put your mask back on? It needs to be covering both your mouth and nose.’”

Such mask-defying passengers can face stiff Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) fines: $35,000-per-incident, until Sept. 9 when Democratic President Joe Biden told FAA to double the fine. And the Justice Department, using a law now on the books, can bring criminal charges. If convicted, the passenger faces up to 20 years in jail.

In any case, Andrews got little chance to warn the irate passenger of the penalties.

“He looked at me, and I will not repeat the vile epithet he used. He said, ‘N*****, I don’t have to listen to a damn thing you say, this is a free country.’ I was completely taken aback. I didn’t know what to say. Then he continued, ‘You heard me, N***** boy.’

“While I am trained for this, I know I don’t deserve to be spoken to like this under any circumstance. Finally, I replied, ‘Sir, regardless of your thoughts, comments, or opinions, there is a mask requirement onboard our aircraft, and failure to comply could restrict your ability to fly with us in the future. We would not want that to happen, so, sir, please do what we’re asking of you. Put your mask on and keep it on this flight.’”

The passenger responded with a second anti-mask tirade: “‘You nor the government can control me, and you are nothing but damn mask police. This entire virus thing is a big fake.’ To this, I answered, ‘If you can’t do it for yourself, would you please do it for your family, who I am sure loves you very much and would be devastated if something were to happen to you. Please do it for your fellow passengers as well.’”

Eventually, the passenger put on his mask and the flight was completed without further rages. But there was no enforcement and no police met the plane to arrest the passenger.

Getting more common

Unfortunately, that air rage sequence is getting more common, both Andrews and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants/CWA testified. And the fines and jail terms don’t stop the anti-maskers before they start, especially if they’re drunk, Nelson added.

An AFA-CWA survey of 5,000 flight attendants halfway through 2021 found 85% had dealt with incidents of air rage, mostly around wearing masks, she told the panel. The same survey showed 58% suffered at least five incidents each, 17% were physically assaulted and 61%, like Andrews, suffered “racist, sexist or homophobic slurs.”

But when the attendants told airline managers, 71% reported no follow-up. Law enforcement met planes at flight’s end 60% of the time, Nelson said, but often the enforcers were airline private security guards, not police.

That air rage must stop, and just warning the passengers they must wear masks all the way, save for the times they eat or drink on the plane, isn’t enough, Nelson testified.

Since January 1, there have been a record 4,284 air rage incidents, she reported, citing FAA figures, and 73% involved resisting requests to wear masks. But only 755 were investigated and only 154 passengers faced charges. Left unsaid: The political views of the resisters.

But Nelson’s point was the feds must better protect aircrews and crew members, like Andrews, from passengers irate over wearing masks and other anti-virus measures.

The FAA, she told lawmakers, must “develop and enforce stronger airport messaging that wearing a mask and following crewmember instructions are both required, and that failure to do so will result in penalties. Also, empower/promote the message that all parties…need to join the team to abbreviate the pandemic and keep air travel safe.”

Nelson also recommended an FAA “zero-tolerance policy” on air rage, not just on the planes but by the airlines and the airports, both of whom the agency regulates. “And make it permanent,” she said.

She urged Congress to push the Justice Department for criminal prosecutions against air ragers, and urged airports “to implement a series of actions” AFA recommended—notably bans on carrying airport-served alcohol on planes “to keep the problems on the ground.”

Committee Democrats generally agreed with Nelson and Thomas. The aviation panel’s top Republican, Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, gave lip service to the air rage issue, before minimizing it.

Full House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., noted “some have argued about the cause of air rage and try to pin it on the federal mask mandate.” He wants joint federal and state action, with airport and airline cooperation, to cut down air rage. “And posting a big sign in the terminal advertising ‘alcohol to-go’” at airport concession stands “is not selling alcohol responsibly.”

Graves started by saying airline workers “have the right to go to work without the fear of being harassed, intimidated, abused, or assaulted–period.” He lauded FAA for “aggressively enforcing” masking rules and “holding people accountable for failing to comply.”

Then he went back to the numbers: 4,284 air rage incidents “out of 350 million air passengers, through Sept. 14. So, if you do the math, that’s 0.001%…I’m worried this hearing may convey to people on the outside that getting on an airplane is wild and unruly. I think it is really important for us to convey…that’s the exception, and I will say it again.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).