By Sandee LaMotte, CNN
Your checklist for airplane travel this holiday season: High quality, comfortable mask; hand sanitizer; early airport arrival; an easy to remove jacket, shoes, laptop and toiletries for the security checkpoint.
Yet according to flight attendants, pre-planning may not prepare you for the full reality of flying in 2021 — and it’s not just Covid-19.
“You may have seen news reports on the disruptive passengers or conflicts on board airlines this year,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents some 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines.
“There have been more than 5,000 disruptive passenger reports sent to the Federal Aviation Administration since the start of this year,” Nelson said. “That’s more disruptions in 2021 than the entire 31-year history of recording such behaviors. And we’re not even done with the year yet!”
CNN spoke to Nelson about what fight attendants want us to know about disruptive passengers — and more — before we board a plane to visit friends and relatives for the holidays.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
CNN: Data from the FAA shows more than 70% of the incidents on planes this year are over masks. Why do you think that is happening?
Sara Nelson: First, it’s very likely a lot of people are traveling for the first time since the pandemic started. And they have forgotten, or just don’t know, that air travel has a whole set of rules to keep everyone safe.
You have to go through security and practically undress to show that you’re not a threat. You can’t smoke — we did that ages ago. Everyone has to wear their seat belts and put their seats and tray tables up.
They also have to wear a mask from the moment they set foot in the airport until they leave the next airport at the end of their journey. And by the way, that’s no longer an airline policy, it’s been a federal requirement since February.
Those federal rules are in place to make sure that we’re keeping a safe space for everyone who is traveling, because not everyone can get vaccinated yet. And it’s very important that people understand why rules are in place. That’s why I’m putting so much emphasis on this.
We truly will not be safe unless everyone follows the rules and we approach this with the spirit that we’re all in this together.
But there’s something bigger going on here. Many people are upset about masks because it’s been made out to be a trigger point by many leaders that people are listening to.
I’m a 25-year flight attendant, and throughout my career when there was something going on socially or politically in this country, we see ramifications on airplanes. And this is absolutely supercharged this year.
CNN: What effect do these incidents have on plane safety?
Nelson: It’s affecting the ability of flight attendants to do their jobs. Before 9/11 we were first responders to safety and health emergencies on board. But after 9/11, we also became aviation security’s last line of defense against terrorism.
These disruptions on board that have been taking place, not only are they a threat to the crew and you, the flier, due to the possibility of people getting hurt directly in these violent outbursts, but they are distracting to the flight crew. They are potentially putting us in a position of missing cues for other threats, or larger threats, such as a coordinated attack.
This is something that people who wish to do larger harm to us are also watching, and wondering, “Is this a new tactic that we can use to create a distraction?”
Now this is not something I want people to be thinking about when they’re flying to see their loved ones. I want to be very clear about it. That’s our job to identify these issues.
But I’m explaining it because I want to be clear about why we take these incidents so seriously. We don’t want anyone getting hurt on board. But there’s a larger threat too.
CNN: Are other passengers in danger when these disruptions occur?
Nelson: Possibly. You could be exposed to an outright brawl, or get smacked by someone who’s flailing about. There are incidents where the conflict and violence is passenger on passenger. We’ve had some instances where individuals have rushed the cockpit. And that’s a very serious concern.
Certainly you may have your travel disrupted. When someone is refusing to mask or put on their seat belt, we’re not going to pull away from the gate if they’re refusing to cooperate. And if it’s up in the air, and the conflict is bad enough, your flight might be diverted.
So you don’t want these things happening on your plane because there’s a risk of getting hurt, and there’s a risk of disrupting your travel by causing you to miss connections and then family events.
Now conflict is not always about masks. Some of the most recent violent events didn’t have anything to do with masks at all.
People are getting upset about any kind of safety instruction: “Put your tray table up. Could you please bring your seat back up so you are not on the man’s knees behind you?” Any kind of instruction at all.
Then layer on alcohol. People are not allowed to drink their own alcohol on a flight or even in the airport, for that matter. They’re not allowed to serve themselves. And that’s news to some people.
People don’t like to be told that they can’t have their alcohol. And the fact that they’ve been drinking also adds to some of the acting out because they do things that maybe they wouldn’t do if they weren’t inebriated.
Some of this is racially charged. Gender, race and homophobic slurs accompany disruptions in 61% of the incidents according to a survey of flight attendants.
CNN: What are warning signs of a pending altercation and what do you advise people to do if one occurs on their flight?
Nelson: Look for angry behavior, such as people cursing. We’ve had people who punched the backs of seats or punched into their own hand. Any kind of violent or threatening behavior and any kind of swearing is usually a clue.
We recommend that you advise a flight attendant at the first sign of trouble so that we can try to deescalate the situation. We are trained in deescalation, and also in how to direct other people to help. So unless there’s an imminent threat of people getting hurt, we really advise passengers not to take action on their own because they may inadvertently make the situation worse.
If you are sitting next to the altercation, don’t push your flight attendant button, as that might pull you into the situation. If you can, get up and go to a galley and tell crew members, or try to lock eyes with someone a few seats away to get their attention to go speak to the crew or push their call button.
Look around and see if you have other helpers, other witnesses. We do really encourage people to be a good witness — don’t just put your head down.
CNN: What if you are traveling with children?
Nelson: The best thing to do would be to try to remove yourself from the situation. That may be impossible because you’re seated and there’s no way to get around it. Move your child to the window or wherever is as far away from the action as possible. Try to cover your kids and call for help.
But I do want to emphasize these incidents are occurring with a relatively small group of people. And people really do respond to the tone that is set on board or in the airport, so I just cannot emphasize enough how important it is to take a few moments to talk with your family and think about bringing kindness and patience with you.
If you are being a good witness and being aware and looking to be a helper, that will create a tone that will help to make your experience much better.
I also want to stress that we’re not willing to accept this as the new normal. We’re continuing to work with the airlines, the airports and the federal government. One of the things that was very, very important is that Department of Justice has started to prosecute publicly.
And as soon as people see that there are severe consequences, we expect that is going to help people understand that you don’t act out in an airport or on a plane.
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