Flight attendants have become ‘punching bags’ over mask rules and some are being assaulted by passengers, a union said. Authorities fined one passenger $52,000 for multiple violations.

Flight attendant covid
  • Passengers have to wear masks on flights – but some are refusing to comply.
  • The FAA has received about 1,900 reports of “unruly” passenger behavior related to masks since January 1.
  • A union leader said attendants had become “punching bags for the public.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

More than a year into the pandemic, some Americans are still refusing to follow mask rules on public transit, leading to an uptick in “unruly behavior” on flights including verbal and physical abuse, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Steve Dickson, administrator of the FAA, said at a virtual town hall that the organization had received about 2,500 reports of unruly passenger behavior since January 1 – of which around 1,900 were related to passengers refusing to wear masks.

“We’ve never seen numbers like this before,” Dickson said at the town hall on May 26, first reported by The New York Times.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), said that the number of reported unruly passengers was around 20 times higher than during a typical year.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its mask mandate guidance on May 13 and said that fully vaccinated Americans didn’t have to wear masks indoors – but the new guidance doesn’t apply to public transit, because the rules there are set by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA says fully vaccinated people must therefore wear a mask on public transit, including planes, trains, and buses. The TSA mandate is set to expire in September.

The FAA also extended its “zero-tolerance policy” in March, meaning that people who assault, threaten, or otherwise interfere with cabin crew members, can be fined or even given jail time.

During the town hall, Dickson said that in mid-May, the FAA had issued its largest fine ever imposed on a single individual, who was fined more than $52,000 for multiple violations including physically assaulting a flight attendant.

Nelson said that the problem stemmed from passengers “taking safety precautions as a political decision rather than a public-health necessity.”

Nicholas Calio, CEO of trade body Airlines for America, said that the incidents of unruly behavior and people refusing to wear masks increasingly came from groups of travelers, rather than individuals.

“I’ve been appalled at the unruly and dangerous behavior that we’ve seen in recent months on commercial aircrafts,” Dickson said.

Nelson said that some flight attendants were “punching bags for the public.” She added that some had been seriously injured, and that some had quit the profession over safety concerns.

Nelson had previously said that these incidents of unruly passengers were becoming both more frequent and more severe. She said that some flight attendants had been assaulted, pushed, and choked, and that there had been instances of passengers spitting or urinating, Insider’s Tim Levin reported.

This comes as the number of Americans flying is surging.

Nearly 1.96 million people passed through US airport controls on Friday, the Transport Safety Administration (TSA) said – just a quarter less than the same day in 2019. This is the most passengers recorded in a single day since the start of the pandemic.

And across the three-day Memorial Day weekend, the TSA said it had screened more than 5 million passengers.

People aren’t just returning to the skies. Uber and Lyft said that demand for ride-hailing apps is surging as people return to travel for both business and pleasure.