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Flight Attendant Union Leader: Alcohol Is Big Factor In Rise Of Airline Incidents

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than a thousand Americans are dying of COVID-19 every day, and yet many people are still fighting mandates put in place to keep them safe. That's especially true on airlines, where some people are literally fighting. The Federal Aviation Administration has reported more than 3,900 incidents involving unruly passengers this year alone. That's a huge jump from prior years, even taking into account the recent slowdown in air travel. And more than half of those incidents are related to wearing masks.

And a new survey by the association that represents flight attendants found that 85% of flight attendants say they've had to deal with disruptive passengers in 2021. And nearly 1 in 5 even had physical altercations with disorderly fliers. We wanted to hear more about this from the perspective of some of the people forced to deal with it. So we called Sara Nelson. She is the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, and she is with us now.

Sara Nelson, thank you so much for being with us.

SARA NELSON: I'm happy to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, I'm assuming that many people listening to our conversation will have seen, you know, television stories, videos of some of these encounters. But I'm wondering what you've been hearing from flight attendants. Just how often are they dealing with this and if there are any specific incidents that stood out to you?

NELSON: We've never seen this number of incidents in the skies. And the difference here is that we are trained in de-escalation tactics. We're trained in dealing with unruly passengers. But this is not a one-off incident. Every day, when flight attendants are putting on their uniforms, they're thinking - is this the day I'm going to get punched in the face? It's just that commonplace.

And what they're telling us is that this is a result of full aircraft and people being told that masks are a political issue rather than a public health necessity. We've got more people who are drinking and bringing those drinks onboard, which you're not allowed to do under federal regulations. After the last year and a half that we have had and the conflicting messaging coming from leadership just all around this pandemic and the stress that people have been under over the last year - and we often are at the tip of the spear of anything that's happening socially or politically in the country.

And what we're seeing is that, you know, people are upset. They're at their wit's end. People have been told the we're at odds with each other and been told that flight attendants and the work that we're doing and the - what we have to enforce onboard is interfering with their rights. But I don't think we're alone. I think this is happening in grocery stores and post offices and...

MARTIN: Sporting events and other places where people...

NELSON: All - exactly, exactly.

MARTIN: So let me ask you about this. You mentioned masks. More than half - this is - according to the FAA data, more than half of these incidents are mask-related. And it seems to start there, but you also mentioned the role of alcohol. The FAA has called for airports to discourage the sale of to-go alcoholic beverages. Do those two things go together? I mean, what's the match and, like, what's the fuel?

NELSON: Alcohol is absolutely a contributor. So I don't want to say that alcohol is always the cause for these events, but alcohol is the biggest contributor to them. So let's face it, people are coming back to the airports and they haven't flown in a while. They don't really remember or know that up in the air pressurized at 8,000 feet, that alcohol can affect you more. And when there's delays in the airport, what are people doing? They're sitting there drinking.

So everything that we can do to minimize the alcohol that's being consumed before people get on the plane or on the plane is just going to help to bring these incidents down. And the more that we can lift up the helpers and make this a really socially unacceptable thing to do on a plane, the better off we're going to be. We do not have our regular passengers to just sort of show people how the program works. So that makes it very difficult. So passengers can be very helpful in identifying that for us and being good witnesses.

MARTIN: Well, I'm not sure if you really want to go there, but I want to - if you do, I want to hear it. Is in part what you're saying - that the flying public is different, that a lot of the customary business passengers or people flying - who are frequent flyers are not flying and that perhaps a lot of the people who are on planes right now are not accustomed to flying and maybe have not absorbed some of the norms. Is that in part what you're saying?

NELSON: Well, whenever someone doesn't really know the procedures, I mean, don't forget, this is a really different space. You can't bring your gun or your knife into our workplace. You have to practically undress to show that you're not a security threat. You have to follow certain rules and regulations. And if you don't really know the program and you don't know what to expect, that can also lead to a lot of anxiety. So we're oftentimes just answering questions of people. It's not as though the people who are flying are, you know, worse people than we would normally have on the planes. But when people know the programs...

MARTIN: I'm not saying that there was.

NELSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I can make a value judgment. But what I am saying is - are you seeing in part that people who are flying are not people who are accustomed to flying? Is that in part what's contributing to this?

NELSON: Absolutely. And I want to be really clear. Some people have misunderstood when we have said that and said that, you know, it's people who don't know how to behave. That's not what we're saying at all. Thank you for making it so clear because this is really about the fact that people just don't know what to expect. And before coronavirus, at least 30% of the people were regular flyers. And what happens in those instances is the rest of the crowd is sort of watching what other people are doing. It's a little bit of follow the leader. It's a lot more taxing when people just don't know the program and don't know what to expect. And we have to keep reminding people about what to do.

MARTIN: Interesting. So before we let you go, back in January, FAA administrator Steve Dickson announced a zero-tolerance policy against disruptive behavior while onboard commercial flights but stopping the agency from issuing warnings and instead moving forward toward enforcement. But are there other things that you think the FAA should do? Are there changes that you think should be made?

NELSON: Well, look, FAA needs more funding for more investigators and to move more quickly through these reports. That is for sure. But they have a significant number of reports that the DOJ can pick up and use to criminally prosecute. We have under the statute the ability to fine people up to $35,000 per incident - and that's what the FAA has been doing - but also to criminally prosecute. And people can face up to 20 years in prison.

With all of the drinking out there, you know, it's a real metaphor. We need some sobering up here. And what we find is that when the consequences are very clear and when people are going to jail, that serves as a real deterrent. And people start to sober up really fast. So there needs to be better coordination across the government to address this issue and to make it very clear to the public what the rules are, why they're in place and what the consequences are if you don't do your part.

MARTIN: That was Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. Sara Nelson, thanks so much for talking to us.

NELSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.