It started as yet another altercation about mask-wearing. But this one was aboard an airplane flying from a state with COVID-19 mask requirements to one without them.
Andrew Fahy, a member of the cabin crew, watched as the two passengers stood arguing in the aisle at the front of the plane.
“I didn’t get between them, and I didn’t take sides,” said Fahy, who has been based in Boston for 34 years as a flight attendant for an airline he asked not be named. “If you take sides these days you lose. I just said, ‘These are what the rules are.’”
But airlines and federal regulators, who require all passengers to wear masks regardless of laws in individual states, report that confrontations like this are becoming far more common and have led in other cases to much uglier behavior.
The Federal Aviation Administration says there were about 2,800 such events reported between Jan. 1 and May 31, fueled by fights over masks, political division, alcohol, growing numbers of people on planes, and a shift in who is sitting in those seats, from business travelers to leisure fliers eager to let loose.
“It’s frustrating. It’s really, really tiring. And no matter what airline rules and CDC rules are there, when you’re at 37,000 feet, there’s no one who can back you up,” Fahy said. “You’re on your own up there.”
The likelihood of a disruptive incident on a flight remains relatively low. With about 23,686 commercial passenger flights per day in the United States, the number reported by the FAA averages out to one per 1,277 flights.
Eighty-six percent of confrontations airline employees typically report are verbal, such as a failure to follow crew instructions, according to the International Air Transport Association; 10 percent are abusive and 4 percent life-threatening, as in an attempt to enter a cockpit.
Experts say it’s also likely more disruptive incidents are being reported than in the past, thanks to greater scrutiny, the ubiquity of video cameras, and social media shaming.
Serious infractions, resulting in fines or criminal prosecution, had hovered between 91 and 183 for more than a decade, but rose to 419 this year, just through the end of May, according to the FAA.
The FAA and the Association of Flight Attendants agree that most of these — 2,100 of the 2,800 total incidents so far this year, the agency says — were triggered by the policy requiring masks on planes.
“There’s an element of tension that didn’t exist before,” said Wendy Patrick, a prosecutor and behavioral expert. “This is just a different type of anger that is present in the post-COVID era. And when people get onto a plane for the first time with all these new rules, it can make them angry over something that might not have been a problem before.”
One man on a Southwest Airlines flight refused to wear a mask, argued profanely with the cabin crew and allegedly hit one of the flight attendants with his bags when he was ordered off the plane. A woman on a JetBlue flight allegedly refused to wear a mask, threw food and an empty liquor bottle, shouted obscenities and physically assaulted crew members.
“There’s this political dialogue that is leading people to believe we are at total odds as a country. There is this undercurrent of anger and conflict. That has created a new atmosphere that’s very difficult for flight attendants to handle,” said Sara Nelson, a Boston-based United Air Lines flight attendant and international president of the flight attendants’ union.
There have also been non-mask-related incidents. When asked to keep her seatbelt fastened, a woman on a Southwest Airlines plane allegedly punched a flight attendant, who lost two teeth, suffered injuries to her face, and had to be taken to a hospital. A Delta flight returned to Minneapolis when a woman started walking up and down the aisle during takeoff and demanded to get off the plane.
Disruptive passengers now face considerably greater repercussions than in the past.
The woman on the Southwest flight was charged with felony battery and banned from the airline, and passengers in the other incidents have been fined tens of thousands of dollars by the FAA, which reports enforcement action underway in 38 cases.
Interfering with a crew member violates federal law and is punishable by a fine of up to $35,000; in January, the agency implemented a zero-tolerance policy, cracking down with fines instead of resorting as in the past to such things as warnings or referring offenders to counseling to avoid more severe penalties.
That policy has been extended for as long as the rule requiring masks on planes, which is now scheduled to run through at least Sept. 13.
Even before the mask debate took to the skies, confrontations with passengers were the third biggest concern of cabin crew members, after unexpected turbulence and the inadvertent deployment of emergency slides, a survey by the IATA found.
The second biggest cause of airborne bad behavior, crew members said in the survey, is alcohol consumption — mostly, they said, before people board, or from stashes of alcohol passengers bring with them.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency, in response to a spike of air rage cases there, began a media campaign before the pandemic to cut down on excessive drinking and the restaurants and bars at several British airports stopped serving shots and beers in so-called double pints, or 40 ounces. The number of alcohol-related offenses at several of those airports fell.
Southwest has announced it will delay resuming sales of alcohol on its flight, and American has suspended serving alcohol in the main cabin.
In several of the cases reported by the FAA, however, including the incident on the JetBlue flight, authorities say passengers had brought their own alcohol with them.
Research suggests that the division of the cabin — what scholars have labeled “situational inequality” — can contribute to air rage. One study found that economy passengers were more likely to act out when they had to board through a first-class section.
Another cause of the apparent increase in air rage is the mix of passengers on planes. The number of passengers has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to the industry association Airlines for America. But business travel has yet to recover, meaning a far bigger proportion of fliers are traveling for leisure.
“Business travelers know the ropes, they know what to do, they comply with the policies,” said Henry Harteveldt, founder of the travel analysis firm Atmosphere Research Group. “Leisure travelers, first-time travelers, or infrequent travelers may not realize there are risks to noncompliance with policies.”
Some fellow passengers are swift to judge, record, and report what they consider misbehavior. “The problems come both from people who may be violating a policy as well as people who may feel sanctimonious about the enforcement of that policy,” said Harteveldt, who recalled pulling down his mask on a flight to take a sip of water only to see his seat mate glaring at him.
“I could feel her judgment, and I’m a person who wears masks all the time,” he said.
Most passengers have been not only happy to embrace mask mandates; they have demanded them, according to an Expedia survey that found enforcement of mask rules was the most important thing to travelers, above even the price of the flight.
“The vast majority of the public is not there to create problems,” Nelson said.
In fact, she said, cabin crews look around at the start of flights for potential helpers in case of confrontations.
“Most flights have no drama. They depart and arrive without incident,” Harteveldt said. “The problem is that when problems occur on a flight or at an airport, it is just so dramatic because these incidents go viral in a moment — the screaming and people fighting in this confined space.”
Fahy, the Boston-based flight attendant, doesn’t expect that to change soon.
“Until this virus goes away, or goes away far enough that people can be comfortable, it’s not going to stop,” he said. In the meantime, Fahy said, “you’re babysitting. You’re babysitting those just a few who don’t want to follow the rules.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.