Alexander Clark had only just boarded the Los Angeles-bound United airliner when the man seated behind him became incensed. As Clark tells it, a flight attendant had repeatedly asked the passenger to alternately stop talking on his phone or don a face mask when, after the fourth ask, the passenger snapped.
“I will find your name, date of birth, and address! I will know your social security number before I get off this plane!” yelled the passenger, who appeared to be in his 30s. He leapt to his feet mid-shout, spittle arcing from his maskless mouth, and stomped over to the male flight attendant.
Other passengers joined the melee; the angry passenger threatened to break somebody’s neck. And Clark caught it all on camera. Since being uploaded last week, it has garnered more than 6m views on the platform – marking yet another viral incidence of ‘air rage’ for the world to see.
Although air traveler hissy fits are nothing new, incidences of bad behavior have spiked amid the tense travel landscape of Covid-19. The phenomenon became especially pronounced this year, as a short-staffed aviation industry struggled to keep pace with the post-vaccine surge in travel demand – and a customer base whose social skills were, after a year of lockdowns, not exactly at their most refined. Factor in a highly politicized federal mask mandate, and the situation has made for a perfect storm of passenger unruliness.
“This is happening every day now,” says Sara Nelson, the president of the national flight attendants’ union and a 25-year flight attendant. Last month, Nelson was one of four aviation industry leaders to testify before the US House, pleading that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Justice (DoJ) enshrine a permanent ‘zero tolerance’ policy for abusive passengers, and pursue criminal prosecution for those who fail to stay in line.
Nelson reported that the FAA had logged 4,284 unruly passenger reports since January. At this rate, she continued, 2021 was poised to produce a higher passenger misconduct incident count “than the entire history of commercial aviation.”
At the center of the chaos are the flight attendants tasked with in-flight safety management. Burned out and frustrated, many have had enough.
“I got called a ‘bitch’ last month because someone was taking their mask off to cough and I told them to keep it on,” says Jules, an Illinois-based flight attendant who is in her ninth year of flying for a major US airline. As far as she’s seen, the increased frequency and severity of passenger outbursts has been “drastic”. It has been, she says, “a long year and a half”. (Jules and the other active flight attendants interviewed for this story have asked that their names, and those of the airlines they work for, be withheld.)
Jules began to notice the shift last year. She can count several incidents where police were called to assist with insubordinate passengers on a flight she was working, either prior to takeoff or post-landing. Two of them took place during October last year alone. On one of those occasions, a male passenger attempted to shove her out of his way when she told him to wear a mask while he walked to the lavatory. Jules, who was five months pregnant at the time, wound up working two more flights before taking an early maternity leave.
“I became too scared that my baby would get hurt,” says Jules. “I’d been verbally abused by passengers before, but nobody had ever put their hands on me before.”
Even when the outbursts don’t involve physical contact or threats of violence, they make for an annoying day’s work. Molly, an eight-year flight attendant for a major US airline who lives in New York, notes that while she hasn’t had to deal with “anything too extreme” since the pandemic, more and more passengers “are acting out in strange and immature ways.”
“One example that sticks out was on a flight from Orlando to Chicago,” Molly recalls. “I asked a man in first class to put his mask on while we were in flight and the next time I passed through the cabin, he was angrily holding the entire top of a Coca-Cola can in his mouth instead of wearing the mask.” Most problem passengers have been people who present as men, roughly between the ages of 30 and 70.
“They seem to be the most upset and frustrated and definitely need the most reminding about following rules for air travel,” Molly says. “Many seem to take it as a personal attack rather than just a reminder about the contract they signed [when booking their tickets], agreeing to wear a mask throughout their journey.”
While the rise in bad behavior has been most pronounced in the US, masking requirements have brought out the entitlement of passengers worldwide. Alex, a Toronto-based flight attendant who has worked for a major Canadian carrier since 2000, has also observed that “the mask issue seems to set certain people off”. Most offenders, in Alex’s experience, have been middle-aged to senior white men – a demographic cohort that roughly echoes Molly’s observation from south of the border. It’s an extension of an increased pattern of behavior Alex began to notice even before the pandemic, wherein more and more passengers (“always white men in business class”) would push back against standard flight rules like wearing seatbelts and storing their hand luggage underneath the seats in front of them.
Another pattern: passengers going to and from cities with stricter Covid safety mandates tend to be more cooperative about following masking requirements on board the aircraft. “In places where there are basically no rules, passengers [are likelier to] think those lax rules also apply in the air,” says Alex.
Although Nelson, the US union president, pushes back against the suggestion that any single group can be singled out as the primary culprit for the ongoing behavioral scourge, she agrees that there appears to be a link between regional attitudes about Covid safety and passenger insubordination, which so frequently involves upset over masks. She lists Texas, Florida and Charlotte as particular hotbeds of unruly passenger incidence.
“I don’t think this story is going away, unfortunately,” says Nelson.
In the meantime, Nelson and the others express hope that the increased public awareness of their current workplace challenges will encourage passenger bystanders to be good witnesses if and when an in-flight outburst should arise.
Which brings us back to Alexander Clark. The viral TikTok documentarian appears heartened by the response to his video – much of which has lampooned the visual absurdity of grown adult men behaving like testosterone-addled toddlers in a public setting.