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Unfriendly skies: Why more airline passengers are flying into a rage

The biggest cause of trouble comes from travelers’ refusal to wear masks on airplanes and at secure checkpoints and gates. Assaults also hit a peak around the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington.

Flight attendant Latifah Fields near Philadelphia International Airport.
Flight attendant Latifah Fields near Philadelphia International Airport.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Every time flight attendant Latifah Fields reaches her destination, she phones her mom and dad to say she’s safe.

Fields, 41, has worked in airplane cabins for the last 11 years, first with a regional airline and now with a major one. Based at Philadelphia International Airport, the Delaware County resident loves “meeting new people, talking to passengers, and being in different locations for my job,” she said.

What she doesn’t love: rude and angry passengers. “My parents worry about me more than they did before the pandemic, because of all the disruptive incidents,” she said.

The skies above Philadelphia and elsewhere in the United States are becoming increasingly unfriendly. As of last week, the Federal Aviation Administration had reported 4,385 “unruly passenger” events in 2021. Almost three-quarters of these episodes were related to enforcement of the FAA’s mask mandate, which has been in place since Feb. 1.

Out of the unruly-passenger incidents through mid-September, 789 investigations were initiated — a number more than three times the investigations begun during 2020.

At Philadelphia International, assaults climbed to a record 39 last year and have already exceeded that figure by mid-September, according to Philadelphia police.

In one of the most high-profile incidents, an apparently intoxicated Maxwell W. Berry, 22, was flying on Frontier Airlines from Philadelphia to Miami on July 31 when he launched into a series of provocations, insulting his fellow passengers, parading shirtless through the plane, and allegedly groping two flight attendants, according to the police report. Video shot by a fellow passenger also shows Berry repeatedly punching a male flight attendant — before he was duct-taped to his seat. Federal authorities later declined to prosecute Berry. He was charged in local court with three misdemeanor counts of battery, and pleaded not guilty.

The biggest cause of trouble comes from travelers’ refusal to wear the required masks on airplanes and at secure parts of the airport like checkpoints and gates. “People have turned a health issue into a political one. Not wearing a mask is a platform people use to express their opinions,” said Jeffrey Price, an aviation security consultant and professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

In addition, “overcrowding, flight cancellations, the availability of alcohol, and the fact that people have forgotten how to behave around others during the isolation of the pandemic all contribute to the cauldron,” said Loretta Alkalay, an adjunct professor at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, near LaGuardia Airport in Queens, N.Y., and a former top FAA lawyer.

Pre-pandemic, research done at the University of San Diego found that lack of space — such as narrow seats, chairs tilted into a passenger’s lap, and severely obese neighbors who spill into a passenger’s turf — is the irritant most likely to lead to conflict on planes.

The toll on passengers and staffers

For infrequent fliers, the odds of witnessing a disruptive event are real but slim. In a podcast with the New York Times, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker stressed that the passengers who cause serious problems on its planes are “a very, very small subset” — one person out of 300,000.

“But we fly 600,000 people a day, so that’s two people a day that we’re having to take action against, because they did something as egregious as assaulting one of our employees,” said Parker, whose airline dominates travel at Philadelphia International.

Exposure to air rage can make passengers feel vulnerable and less safe, according to a 2020 summary of research in the Journal of Airline and Airport Management.

In 2019, while on a flight from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Newark, South Philly resident Frankie Zelnick, 36, sat in front of an agitated, possibly inebriated man who shook her seat and yelled at flight attendants.

Part way through the flight, an attendant yelled, “Green light!” and a group of cabin crew and passengers leaped up and tied the man to his chair with seat belts.

“It was definitely scary,” Zelnick reported. Now, when she watches air-rage episodes on TikTok, she thinks: “I know what it feels like to be on that plane.”

Unlike passengers, airline and airport workers are quite likely to experience disruptive episodes. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been over 70 physical assaults on TSA officers,” said Darby LaJoye, executive assistant administrator for security operations at the Transportation Security Administration, at a July hearing of the House’s Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security.

The Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America, which represents nearly 50,000 U.S. flight attendants, surveyed cabin crew members from 30 airlines, and the results, released in late July, were “sobering,” the union’s report concluded. “Eighty-five percent of respondents reported having dealt with at least one unruly passenger so far in 2021. Fifty-eight percent reported handling at least five incidents. And a shocking 17% reported a physical confrontation with a passenger.”

In addition, the report noted that “61% of those who experienced unruly passenger behavior reported passengers using sexist, racist, and homophobic language.”

The vitriol hit a peak on flights in and out of Washington around Jan. 6, when people who contested the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election as president filled the airways.

“It was a really scary time,” recalled Center City resident Paul Hartshorn Jr., a flight attendant and communications director for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, an independent union that represents more than 24,000 U.S.-based American Airlines cabin crew members. “Staff were assaulted on airplanes, at the airport, and in hotel shuttles by angry passengers.”

Many of the verbal assaults around Jan. 6 had racial overtones. Flight attendant Fields reported, “Some flight attendants shared that passengers were more aggressive to them if they were wearing Black Lives Matter lapel pins.”

A hefty body of research says that flight staff “traumatized” (in the AFA-CWA’s word) by abusive passengers suffer both mental and physical consequences. According to the 2020 Journal of Airline and Airport Management review, air-rage incidents can lead to psychological distress, fatigue, social anxiety, and job dissatisfaction.

These incidents also endanger the safety of the entire aircraft, said Price, the Denver security consultant. “If passengers distract flight attendants, that makes the plane ride less safe,” he said. “And if three police officers are needed to pull a passenger off a plane, that makes three less available if an active shooter situation happens in the airport.”

One measure widely believed to improve safety is reducing access to alcohol. “During the pandemic, airports introduced the practice of to-go alcohol. You can walk around the airport drinking. You can get alcohol delivered to the plane,” said Taylor Garland, spokesperson for the AFA-CWA union, which hopes to eliminate take-out drinks.

American Airlines, among other carriers, bans alcohol in coach class, though it is allowed in first and business classes.

Is better enforcement the answer?

The federal government, flight attendant unions, and several airlines have responded to the sharp rise in disruptive passenger behavior by calling for stronger penalties and more predictable enforcement. A week after the Jan. 6 air flight debacle, the FAA, prompted by the AFA-CWA and the APFA unions, announced a “zero tolerance” policy.

“Historically, the agency has addressed unruly-passenger incidents using a variety of methods ranging from warnings and counseling to civil penalties,” the FAA said on its website. “Under the new zero tolerance policy, FAA will not address these cases with warnings or counseling. The agency will pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members.”

Fines for interfering with flight attendants can now range up to $35,000. On Aug. 19, the agency announced that penalties for passengers so far this year have reached more than $1 million.

Jail time is also possible. But since the FAA can only issue civil penalties, the legal cases must be referred to the FBI. The FBI and the local airport police unit then decide which agency will take the case.

However, an analysis by Bloomberg News found that serious air-rage cases are often not prosecuted. In testimony Thursday before the House Subcommittee on Aviation, Sara Nelson, president of the AFA-CWA, concurred: “Over the past few months, CWA ground service members across the country have experienced serious incidents of physical and verbal abuse and harassment, with few repercussions for the offending passenger imposed by law enforcement.”

Explained former FAA counsel Alkalay: “U.S. attorneys just don’t have the time. Other crimes are more pressing.”

Airlines can penalize passengers by putting them on no-fly lists. “For example, United Airlines banned over 1,000 travelers due to issues related to mask mandates and unruly behavior,” said Nelson.

Similarly, Spirit Airlines banned three Philadelphia women who threw objects at airline crew members in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport on July 14, 2020.

“But people don’t stay on no-fly lists forever,” noted aviation security expert Price. “They can appeal to the airlines and often do get off those lists.” In addition, since airlines maintain separate files, a no-fly passenger can simply change to a different carrier. “There needs to be a platform for airlines to share these names,” Price said.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 9, the TSA doubled fines for passengers on airplanes, buses, and trains who don’t wear masks, from a minimum of $250 to $500 and a maximum of $1,000 for first offenders. About 4,000 travelers have received warning letters from the TSA, and 126 are being investigated for possible fines, the Washington Post reported.

Do severe penalties prevent air-rage incidents? Some experts, like Price, believe that “more stringent enforcement can deter unruly passengers. Make an example of them. Publicize the prosecutions.”

But others, like Alkalay, feel the threat of punishment will not stop passengers caught up in the heat of the moment. “We may not be able to prosecute ourselves out of this,” she said.

Until the conundrum is solved, airline and airport staff report to work each day not knowing if they are going to encounter violence. Said Fields: “I’m not afraid to be on an airplane. It’s more like, ‘Please, not today — I don’t want to be on the next TikTok video.’”


Whatever happened to the duct-taped guy (and other angry travelers)?

Here are a few local air-rage cases, and how they fared in the U.S. justice system.

Type of case: Alcohol-related

Name: Maxwell Wilkinson Berry, 22

Date: July 31, 2021

Incident: On a Frontier flight from Philadelphia to Miami, an apparently inebriated Berry allegedly groped two female flight attendants and punched a male attendant. With help from a few passengers, cabin staff duct-taped Berry to his seat while other passengers jeered and laughed.

Outcome: The FBI decided that it would not pursue felony charges against Berry. But the Miami-Dade County police arrested him on three counts of misdemeanor battery and he was released on $1,500 bail. He pleaded not guilty and asked for a jury trial, which is scheduled for Dec. 14.

Type of case: Mask refusal

Names: Unknown

Date: Feb. 19, 2021

Incident: While a Republic Airlines flight from Indianapolis to Philadelphia was still on the tarmac, two women repeatedly ignored instructions to put on face masks and also played, in the FAA’s words, “loud, obscene music.” The captain turned the plane around and called for law enforcement. One of the women, said the FAA, “punched the female passenger who was seated in front of her, holding a small infant, in the back of the head.”

Outcome: The FAA fined that woman $18,500. The other woman who refused to wear a mask was fined $10,000.

Type of case: Fight between passengers

Names: Unknown

Date: July 19, 2021

Incident: After a Frontier Airlines flight from Philadelphia landed in Miami, a white man accused a Black man of taking too long to remove his baggage from the overhead compartment. The two started fighting, which turned into a melee with a group of white passengers pitted against a group of Black passengers, while flight attendants and other passengers intervened. Ultimately, the two men were pulled apart.

Outcome: No arrests were made because the man who was initially assaulted declined to press charges, according to Miami-Dade County police.

Type of case: Brawl in airport

Names: Keira Ferguson, 23; Danaysha Dixon, 23; Tymaya Wright, 22.

Date: July 14, 2020

Incident: Three Philadelphia women “became combative following a delayed flight” from Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International to their hometown, according to a statement by Spirit Airlines. At Gate G14, the enraged travelers hurled phones, shoes, full water bottles, metal boarding signs, and a Burger King bag, and repeatedly punched and kicked airline employees.

Outcome: The Broward County Sheriff’s Office arrested Ferguson, Dixon, and Wright for misdemeanor battery. Wright, who allegedly put an employee’s phone in her backpack, was also charged with petty theft. The women initially pleaded not guilty, but in the spring of 2021, they changed their pleas to no contest. Punishments included: six months’ probation (by mail), a 13-week online anger-management course, a letter of apology to the victims, and banishment from Spirit Airlines.


The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.