85 percent of Flight Attendants dealt with unruly passengers, nearly 1 in 5 experienced physical incidents in 2021

After new survey, Flight Attendants Union Calls on FAA, DOJ to take action, make “zero-tolerance” policy permanent

WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 29, 2021) — A new national survey of nearly 5,000 flight attendants released today by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO (AFA) found that over 85 percent of all respondents had dealt with unruly passengers as air travel picked up in the first half of 2021. More than half (58%) had experienced at least five incidents this year. A shocking 17 percent reported experiencing a physical incident.

AFA is calling on the FAA and DOJ to protect passengers and crew from disruptive, and verbally and physically abusive travelers. Survey data confirmed that existing measures were failing to address the problem. 71 percent of Flight Attendants who filed incident reports with airline management received no follow-up and a majority did not observe efforts to address the rise in unruly passengers by their employers.

“This survey confirms what we all know, the vitriol, verbal and physical abuse from a small group of passengers is completely out of control, and is putting other passengers and flight crew at risk. This is not just about masks as some have attempted to claim. There is a lot more going on here and the solutions require a series of actions in coordination across aviation,” said Sara Nelson, President of AFA-CWA. “It is time to make the FAA ‘zero tolerance’ policy permanent, the Department of Justice to utilize existing statute to conduct criminal prosecution, and implement a series of actions proposed by our union to keep problems on the ground and respond effectively in the event of incidents.”

“This is not a ‘new normal’ we are willing to accept,” Nelson continued. “We know the government, airlines, airports, and all stakeholders can take actions together to keep us safe and flying friendly. We will be sharing survey findings with FAA, DOT, TSA, and FBI to help more fully identify the problems and our union’s proposed actions to affect positive change.”

The survey provides further documentation of the unprecedented rise in verbally abusive and physically violent passenger misconduct documented by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA’s most recent public reporting included 3,615 incident reports and a record number of enforcement actions to enforce aviation safety rules. In March 2021, FAA Administration Steve Dickson extended the FAA “zero tolerance” policy for passenger misconduct, and the FAA has since run an aggressive public campaign to communicate consequences of violations.

It is a violation of federal law to interfere or disrupt the duties of a crewmember. Federal Aviation Regulations 91.11, 121.580 and 135.120 state that "no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember's duties aboard an aircraft being operated."

When asked what they believed to be the cause or escalating reasons for the unruly behavior, Flight Attendants cited that mask compliance, alcohol, routine safety reminders, flight delays and cancellations were all common factors in unruly passenger interactions. Many cited multiple factors contributed to incidents.

Flight attendants reported facing extensive verbal abuse, including from visibly drunk passengers, passengers yelling and swearing in response to masking directions, and often aggressively challenging flight crew working to ensure compliance with federal rules. Many respondents recounted aggressive incidents, including shoving, kicking seats, throwing trash at flight crew, defiling the restroom in response to crewmember instructions, and following flight crew through the airport to continue yelling and harassment.

One Flight Attendant wrote, “We tell them [passengers] that it is a federal offense to not comply with crew member instructions, use foul and/or threatening language onboard, and then the plane is met by airline supervisors or airport law enforcement and the passenger gets a slap on the wrist and sent on their way. I've been yelled at, cursed at and threatened countless times in the last year and the most that has come out of it has been a temporary suspension of travel for the passenger. We need real consequences if flight attendants are ever going to feel safe at work again.”

Another Flight Attendant wrote, “I was on the floor in the back of the plane and the [rest of] crew members didn't know what happened until after my attacker had already deplaned.”

Additional findings:

  • Reports to law enforcement: 33 percent of the respondents reporting verbal incidents said that law enforcement was requested to meet their flight in response to the incident. Of the respondents that encountered physical incidents, 60 percent said law enforcement was requested to meet their flight.
  • When incidents occur: While 84 percent of respondents reported that they experienced unruly behavior during flight, 50 percent reported witnessing misconduct during boarding, and 13 percent reported behavior beginning in the gate area.
  • Sexist, racist, homophobic language: 61 percent of respondents reported that disruptive passengers used racist, sexist and/or homophobic slurs during incidents. Many specific examples were provided, most of which were too offensive to repeat.

“Racist, sexist, and homophobic abuse of flight crews creates a hostile environment for everyone onboard and violates federal law. It has no place anywhere, and certainly not in a workplace environment. Our union has fought discrimination and prejudice for decades, and we are not about to allow this moment to set us back. Hell no! Not on our watch. Aviation is about bringing people together, not tearing us apart. Every person matters, and we can only have the freedom of flight when we recognize the reality that we are all in this together.”

Nearly 5,000 responses from flight attendants across 30 airlines were collected from June 25, 2021 through July 14, 2021 through an online survey.