According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those who are fully vaccinated with an FDA-authorized vaccine or a vaccine authorized for emergency use by the World Health Organization can now travel safely within the U.S.  Face coverings, however, must still be worn at the airport and during flight.

With approximately 41% of the U.S. population now fully vaccinated, domestic airline travel is on the rise, and understandably so.  After a year like 2020, the population is eager to make up for lost time.  Vacations and trips to visit family in distant states are being planned and businesses are easing travel restrictions.  While current commercial air travel numbers are still well short of 2019 levels, consider this snapshot statistic:  between May 1st and 25th, 2020, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported 5,328,112 check point travelers; and between May 1st and 25th of this year, the TSA reported 39,295,252 check point travelers.  That is an approximate eight-fold increase.  Another key statistic as of late May 2021 indicates that since the beginning of this year, the average passenger count per day has increased by 1 million passengers.  On May 28, 2021, the Friday before Memorial Day Weekend, the number of daily travelers topped 1.9 million, a level of travel not seen since March 2020.   A continued surge in commercial airline travel over the summer months is expected.

The increase in commercial airline travel is good for the economy and is a positive sign for airlines.  Yet, a growing problem exists.  The increase in commercial airline travel has been accompanied by a spike in unruly passenger incidents.  On average, the FAA reports 100-150 formal cases of unruly passenger behavior per year.  Since the beginning of 2021, that number has jumped to 2,500, including approximately 1,900 passengers who refused to comply with the federal mask mandate.  This has prompted a series of stern warnings from the federal government.

FAA administrator Steve Dickman announced in a March 16, 2021 statement that the agency would be extending its unruly-passenger zero-tolerance policy, a policy first announced by the FAA in January 2021 that did away with “warnings and counseling” in response to unruly passengers.  The policy instead directs the agency to take strong enforcement action against passengers who disrupt or threaten the safety of a flight.  In his statement, Dickman acknowledged the growing problem:  “The number of [unruly passenger] cases we’re seeing is still far too high, and it tells us urgent action continues to be required.”

At a press conference on May 25, 2021, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas addressed the growing issue of passengers refusing to wear masks during flights:  “Let me be clear in underscoring something.  It is a federal mandate that one must wear a mask in an airport, in the modes of public transportation, and on the airplane itself – and we will not tolerate behavior that violates the law.”  Although Mayorkas did not specify how passengers would be punished, both the TSA and FAA have the authority to fine passengers.  In fact, the FAA has recently brought fines against passengers for unruly behavior, consistent with its zero-tolerance policy.  Some recent examples include:

• March 2021 incident: $10,500 proposed fine against a JetBlue passenger who, prior to departure, would not comply with mask requirement. The passenger refused to comply, yelled at the flight attendant with use of profanity, and was subsequently removed from the plane.

• February 2021 incident: $15,000 proposed fine against a JetBlue passenger who allegedly visited a friend in first class, brought back champagne, food, and a headset to his economy seat, and when confronted by a flight attendant, assaulted the flight attendant. The flight was diverted and the passenger was removed.

• February 2021 incident: $18,500 proposed fine against JetBlue passenger who allegedly stole mini bottles of alcohol and refused to pull facemask over mouth and nose.

• February 2021 incident: $9,000 proposed fine against a Southwest passenger who refused to comply with a flight attendant’s instructions to pull his facemask over her nose. The passenger then declared she would not comply with the policy and threw her mask on the cabin floor. The cabin crew alerted the captain, who arranged for law enforcement to meet the aircraft upon arrival at its destination.

• January 2021 incident: $15,000 proposed fine against a JetBlue passenger, who is alleged to have brought and consumed his own alcohol on the flight and verbally abused the flight attendant when told not to talk on his cell phone during the flight.

• January 2021 incident: $15,000 proposed fine against an Alaskan passenger who pushed/shoved a flight attendant who was walking down the aisle during a mask compliance check.

Flight attendants are understandably frustrated and concerned.  TWU Local 556, the Union of Southwest Airline flight attendants, has had enough, particularly after one of the Union’s flight attendants was assaulted by a passenger, resulting in facial injuries and two lost teeth.  The passenger repeatedly ignored standard inflight instructions and then struck the flight attendant in the face.  Upon landing, the passenger was arrested, and was subsequently banned for life from traveling on the airline.

TWU Local 556 President Lyn Montgomery recently said in a statement: “We are asking our carrier, the government, and the flying public’s help in ending this epidemic of aggression and assault.  Flight attendants are first responders in the sky who are focused on safety.  As people return to the skies, we are asking for everyone’s help in complying with flight attendant requests to help ensure a safe and fun atmosphere for all.”  Montgomery, in a letter written to Southwest CEO and Chairman Gary Kelly, stated:  “This unprecedented number of incidents has reached an intolerable level, with passenger non-compliance events also becoming more aggressive in nature.”

In response to the growing number of assaults in the sky, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have banned the service of alcohol entirely during flights.  Other airlines may follow suit.  The cessation of serving alcohol during flights, however, will not stop passengers from consuming alcohol at the airport prior to boarding.  Nor will the banning of alcohol during flights address the mask non-compliance issue, as polls continue to show that an unfortunately high percentage of Americans believe COVID-19 is a hoax or is otherwise not a direct threat to their own personal health.  As a result, many in the U.S. have refused to wear face coverings since the beginning of the pandemic.

As commercial airline traffic grows over the summer, and aircraft begin to fill again, unruly passenger incidents will likely continue.   Despite the CDC’s recent guidance that those who are fully vaccinated may resume general activities without masks, and many states in the U.S. subsequently lifting mask mandates entirely, masks are still required during flights.  In fact, on April 30, 2021, the TSA extended its facemask requirement for airports and during flight, as well as on over-the-road buses and rail systems, until September 13, 2021.  In a press release on April 30, 2021, coinciding with the mask mandate extension, Darby LaJoye of the TSA stated: “The federal mask requirement throughout the transportation system seeks to minimize the spread of COVID-19 on public transportation.  Right now, about half of all adults have at least one vaccination shot and masks remain an important tool in defeating this pandemic.”

As long as masks are required on flights and resistance to mask wearing continues amongst a portion of the American population, unruly passenger incidents are far from over.  While the increase in commercial travel is very welcome, an increasing number of incidents involving unruly passengers is not.  We all hope for a safe and enjoyable summer travel season.