Dallas-Fort Worth’s hometown air carriers are still breaking up fights and subduing unruly passengers nearly a year after the face mask mandate dropped, with incidents often caught on camera and posted to social media.
In November, a Southwest Airlines flight traveling from Houston to Ohio made an emergency stop in Arkansas because of an unruly passenger who, authorities said, tried to open an exit door during the flight.
As of Dec. 15, the Federal Aviation Administration published that there were 2,359 reports of unruly passengers. Of that number, the FAA launched 832 investigations with 553 enforcement action cases initiated, according to FAA data. Security violations are excluded because those cases are handled by TSA.
Sharona Hoffman, professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, said these behaviors from passengers existed well before the pandemic began, but the pandemic elevated the frequency of incidents.
In late 2020, an FAA spokesperson said, the agency saw a large surge in passenger incidents. The FAA said passengers might act out for many reasons, but many lead to physical or verbal assault of crew members.
Interfering with an air carrier or airport crew member is a violation of federal law. Historically, the FAA has closed cases about unruly passengers with civil penalties, warnings, counseling or no action if there is insufficient evidence of a violation.
In 2021, the FAA implemented a zero-tolerance policy toward unruly passengers, after seeing “a disturbing increase” in unruly passengers at airports. In April 2022, the FAA made it a permanent policy. Since then, the agency has said it is not addressing cases with warning notices or counseling.
There have been unruly-passenger episodes for years, but they are getting more attention now because of social media, said Keith Jeffries, a former TSA senior executive and now vice president of K2 Security Screening Group, an aviation security firm.
“Passengers are able to record and we’re seeing it more,” Jeffries said. “It’s not uncommon. I think it is just the ability for folks to pull out their camera and start recording it that gets the attention.”
“People were more nervous about flying because there was some risk,” Hoffman said. “A lot of people did not want to cooperate with mask mandates. It became sort of a political statement to resist those. Some people felt encouraged and almost courageous if they actually resisted mask mandates or created problems on airplanes.”
Now that the travel industry has rebounded, planes are a lot more crowded, which can lead to some stress for travelers, Hoffman said.
“Everybody is feeling more nervous,” Hoffman said. “There’s certainly more concern when you get on an airplane than there was before.”
The FAA said alcohol does come up in many cases, but the agency’s authority only extends when passengers are interfering with crew members.
“People will just get a little bit too many drinks in them before they depart for their spring break adventure or are coming back from, so that’ll be a huge driver,” Jeffries said.
There’s no bulletproof plan to stop unruly passengers, Jeffries said. But he believes airports and TSA have created a very robust security process.
“Is it perfect? Absolutely not,” he said. “Because as soon as we put in another deterrent, someone else is out there trying to circumvent that deterrent that we’ve placed in whether it’s a piece of technology or a process or procedure.”
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