October 17, 2021

The Unfriendly Skies

Spectator
By Stephen Tuttle | Sept. 18, 2021

A woman on a Southwest Airlines flight refuses to fasten her seat belt or put on her mask. The video, taken by another passenger, shows her standing and repeatedly striking a flight attendant until another passenger intervenes. The flight attendant has a tooth knocked out, three others cracked and suffers a broken nose and facial lacerations.

An American Airlines passenger, screaming that the plane is going to crash, assaults a flight attendant and tries to reach an exit door before being restrained.

Another passenger video shows a man duct-taped to a seat after he drunkenly shouted some nonsense about his parent's wealth, grabbed a flight attendant's breasts, and tried to assault another attendant.  

Last week, a couple was booted from a Jet Blue flight for refusing to properly wear a face mask, the leading cause of passenger disruptions. They were sufficiently unruly, at least according to the airline, and have been banned from all future Jet Blue flights.  

It might come as a shock to some of you, but there was a time when flight crews, including flight attendants, were a well-respected group. Most saw the jobs as at least desirable, if not glamorous. While the occasional over-imbibing passenger caused problems, acts of violence against flight attendants were extraordinarily rare.

Even during the height of the flight hijacking frenzy, violence aboard airplanes was rare. Some of you might not know, or have forgotten, that hijacking a commercial flight, better known as skyjacking, was once fairly common. Given the security in place today, it's hard to believe there was a time when it was remarkably easy. 

The period from 1968 to 1972 saw an almost inconceivable 130 skyjackings on airlines in the United States, occasionally more than one on the same day. It all started as a publicity stunt and political statement by some on the extreme left who wanted to move to Cuba, then it was Algeria or Libya. Though rightly terrified and grossly inconvenienced, passengers were unharmed by skyjackers who were threatening but very rarely violent.    

Statement-making skyjackings soon evolved into skyjackings for money. The most famous of those was carried out by the notorious DB Cooper on Thanksgiving eve 1971. He skyjacked a Northwest Orient Flight, made it stop in Seattle to pick up $200,000 in ransom and four parachutes, then took off again, ultimately opening the rear exit door of the in-flight plane and parachuting out over western Washington, never to be seen again.

The airlines’ approach to all of these skyjackings was complete compliance. Absent violence against passengers or crew, the better option from a business perspective was to cooperate with the bad guys. Even when the skyjackings grew more ominous, flight attendants were rarely harmed.

These days, the threat of a skyjacking is near zero, but passengers have become more violent than the early skyjackers ever were. We are an angry country, now with angry fliers.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which keeps track of such things, this year has had 4,184 “unruly passenger” incidents reported to them as of the first week of September. Some involve flight cancellations or delays, lost luggage, and seat selection, but the vast majority, about 75 percent involve the mask requirement mandated by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). Most of those, in turn, involve alcohol consumption and over-consumption. 

Nearly 85 percent of flight attendants report they have encountered unruly passengers, but for too many, it has been much worse than unruly. About 17 percent report physical altercations with passengers. As a result, this year has seen the launch of twice as many criminal investigations involving violent airline passengers than was the case in 2019 and 2020 combined.  

Failure to properly wear a mask on public transportation can result in fines ranging from $500 to $1,000; betting physical with a member of the flight crew is decidedly more serious. It is a federal crime to assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a flight crew in any way. The consequence can be jail or prison and fines up to $25,000. Yet, the assaults continue. 

And here's the thing: The flight crews and gate agents those ninnies are attacking have nothing to do with the rules so despised by some. They do not schedule or cancel flights or handle luggage, and they didn't create the mask rule they must now enforce.

On February 1, 2021, the TSA, believing that people confined in human containers were at greater risk of COVID-19 transmission, issued a mandate that (with rare exceptions) appropriate masks must be worn on all public transportation. That mandate has been extended to January 1, 2022, and the courts have thus far agreed the TSA has the right to create such a rule.  

This is not hard. If you don't like the mask mandate, don't take public transportation. Otherwise, recognize that the people at work doing the transporting are not the enemy.  

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