Flight attendants grapple with ‘unprecedented rise’ in unruly passengers

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Photograph: Steven Senne/AP

The latest high-profile incident of air rage in American skies came on 31 July. Video from a Frontier Airlines flight showed a passenger bound with duct tape to his seat, after he had acted aggressively and allegedly grabbed a flight attendant’s breasts.

It was far from the first case of unruly behavior this year in the US. In the first six months of 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has investigated more than 600 incidents involving unruly passengers, nearly double the number in the previous two years combined.

There has been an “unprecedented rise” in incidents of passengers acting out on planes, according to the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), as people return to flights after months away due to pandemic restrictions.

More than 85% of attendants have dealt with unruly passengers in the first six months of 2021, according to the AFA, while nearly one in five attendants “reported experiencing a physical incident”.

“This is the worst it’s ever been. Everyone is at a stress level 10 coming out of the pandemic,” Taylor Garland, a spokeswoman for AFA, told the Guardian.

Airlines have reported 3,715 incidents involving unruly passengers since 1 January, many of those involving people who refused to wear face masks, but the AFA said there was “a lot more going on”.

As well as mask non-compliance, “alcohol, routine safety reminders, flight delays and cancellations were all common factors in unruly passenger interactions”, Garland said.

In the Frontier Airlines incident, the bound passenger, identified as 22-year-old Max Berry, had ordered multiple alcoholic drinks during the flight from Philadelphia to Miami, according to reports.

A video shared on Twitter showed Berry, wearing an orange T-shirt and a baseball cap, shouting loudly.

“My parents are worth more than fucking two million goddamn dollars,” Berry shouts.

Later in the clip Berry is seen attempting to punch a flight attendant, who overpowers him. In a separate video, Berry is then seen taped to a seat.

According to a Miami-Dade police report seen by the Miami Herald, Berry had earlier spilt a drink on his T-shirt and gone to the bathroom. When he emerged he was topless. A flight attendant told Berry to put on a shirt and helped him get one from his bag.

Later Berry “walked around the plane for about 15 minutes”, chatting with a different female flight attendant before “groping her breasts”, according to police.

Once the flight landed, Berry was arrested and charged with three counts of battery, the Herald reported. He has denied the groping allegations.

But on Friday the FAA suggested that unruly passengers were not charged frequently enough with crimes. The agency’s administrator, Stephen Dickson, said police were called to airports to deal with incidents involving passengers every week.

“Nevertheless, many of these passengers were interviewed by local police and released without criminal charges of any kind,” Dickson said, in a series of letters he sent to airport officials.

“When this occurs, we miss a key opportunity to hold unruly passengers accountable for their unacceptable and dangerous behavior.”

The Association of Flight Attendants said 58% of attendants had experienced at least five incidents in the first half of this year. In a survey of nearly 5,000 flight attendants, the association found that 61% reported that disruptive passengers had used “racist, sexist and/or homophobic slurs during incidents”.

The Frontier incident came less than a month after a woman was restrained with tape and “flex cuffs” during an American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Charlotte, after she allegedly attempted to open the plane’s doors.

The woman also “physically assaulted, bit and caused injury to a flight attendant”, USA Today reported.

The FAA is unable to file criminal charges but can propose fines for unruly passengers. Since 1 January 2021 the agency said it has proposed $682,000 in fines against passengers.

In one of those cases, the FAA proposed an $18,500 fine for a woman onboard a flight from Indianapolis to Philadelphia who refused to wear a face mask and used “obscene language against the flight attendants and other passengers”.

The passenger was ordered to leave the plane; as she did so, she punched a woman who was holding a baby, according to the FAA.