In recent times, alarming reports have emerged about assaults on flight attendants. In response to this crisis, flight attendants and other essential airline workers affiliated with the Transport Workers Union (TWU), staged a significant action at Newark Liberty International Airport. This action aimed to raise awareness about the ‘Assault Won’t Fly’ campaign, which targets the increasing incidents of unruly passengers assaulting airline staff.
Rising Concerns Over Unruly Passengers
By August 20, 2023, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) noted a staggering 1,281 reports of unruly passengers for the year. That’s an average of more than 5 reports daily. Thom McDaniel, TWU International VP and a flight attendant with Southwest, shared with FOX5, “Pre-pandemic, we would have assaults happening on airline workers at about 300 a year, and those increased by about 3,000% in 2020, and they’re continuing to go on.”
Real-Life Accounts of Flight Attendants Suffering Through the Unruly Passenger Crisis
During the day of action, flight attendants from TWU talked to passengers, sharing their unsettling experiences with violence and harassment. These incidents often arise from routine safety protocols or unexpected flight delays—circumstances beyond the control of airline workers.
Tiffany Humes, a JetBlue flight attendant, and TWU member, recounted a chilling incident to NJ.com. She described how an extended delay on the tarmac led to such a volatile environment that crew members resorted to using a cart as a barricade against agitated passengers. “They take it out on crew members,” she said.
In another disturbing account, Southwest flight attendant Karla Kozak spoke of a brutal attack where a passenger violently assaulted her colleague, resulting in a three-year work hiatus. Kozak emphasized, “We are trained in de-escalation and hospitality, and customer abuse is unacceptable.”
Legislative Support for Flight Attendant Safety in the Skies
The ‘Protection from Abusive Passengers Act‘ has garnered flight attendants’ backing. This bipartisan proposal, reintroduced in March 2023, seeks to bar violent passengers from using national airspace after a conviction for assaulting aviation workers. Such passengers would also face exclusion from the TSA PreCheck and Customs’ Global Entry programs.
Supporting the bill, U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer from New Jersey firmly stated to NJ.com, “We need to put an end to assaults against our airline workers and ensure these criminals are brought to justice and held accountable. If you put your hands on an airline worker, you should never be allowed to fly again, period.”
Furthermore, the Union urges the US Senate to approve the FAA Reauthorization Act. Having cleared the House in July 2023, this bipartisan legislation offers improved measures against workplace assault, including enhanced assault prevention strategies and training in self-defense and de-escalation.
The safety and well-being of airline workers are paramount. The ‘Assault Won’t Fly’ campaign seeks to spotlight the urgency of addressing and mitigating passenger-related violence. As the skies become busier post-pandemic, ensuring a safe environment for workers and passengers is crucial for the industry’s future.
The FlightChic Take: Assault is assault. On the ground or in the air. The punishment for unruly passengers should fit the crime.
While IATA has previously explained that charging offenders as criminals is complex if the attacks occur on international flights (see video), the first step should be to charge individuals on domestic flights and hand out severe sentences. Civil penalties haven’t worked. Neither have the light sentences some judges have dolled out.
What would happen if a person assaulted a fireman while conducting their duty? Or an EMT? Or a police officer?
Flight attendants perform those three duties on aircraft. Their primary role is not to bring passengers beverages and food. It is to put out fires in the cabin, keep peace and order onboard, and perform emergency medical assistance where needed. Regulators require that airlines hire sufficient flight attendants onboard to ensure flight safety. Flight attendants put their lives on the line every day. They have helped bring life into the world during a flight. They are responsible for getting passengers out alive if the plane goes down. Flight attendants died on 9/11 attempting to prevent disaster. They work a thankless job for little pay and are expected to smile through all of it.
The charges for assaulting a flight attendant should match those for assaulting any other emergency response personnel on duty. Banning culpable individuals from flying for life is only one step. But until unruly passengers face real jail time at home, we won’t see incidents ease.
It’s Past Time to Act To Solve the Unruly Passenger Crisis
This abusive, antisocial behavior raises great concerns for cabin crew working when they are most needed: when there will be large numbers of passengers or when the industry is recovering from disruptions. Many plan to travel on their final vacation this Labor Day in the US. Hurricane Idalia caused further airline disruption in the US.
In reality, the skies won’t always be smooth. Flight disruptions are often inevitable, and nobody likes them. But the cabin crew, responsible for passenger safety, deserve to be treated with respect. They should also feel safe in their workplace.
Passengers should be mindful that they are flying in what is effectively a thin tin can, moving at speed, at an altitude that they could not survive. It’s hardly the place for an adult tantrum. The coordination of the pilots and flight attendants and the careful engineering of aircraft make flying safe. Passengers need to do their part to keep it that way.