- Pilots and flight attendants have been forced to deal with increased bouts of violence in the skies.
- Tensions over the ongoing federal mask mandate have created hostile environments on some flights.
- One airline pilot shared how he deals with unruly flyers and what goes on in the cockpit while incidents occur.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The airline industry is facing unprecedented levels of violent incidents onboard airplanes as tensions rise over issues including the federal mask mandate. In the US, more than 3,200 cases of unruly behavior onboard aircraft have been reported by the Federal Aviation Administration as of early July.
And while flight attendants are tasked with dealing directly with unruly passengers, an aircraft’s pilots have to ensure the security of the cockpit, communicate with their airlines’ head offices, and most importantly, keep flying the plane.
One captain for a major US airline spoke to Insider on the condition of anonymity so he could speak freely on the pilot’s perspective of these incidents.
In-flight violence is rare for this airline industry veteran of nearly 30 years. But during the pandemic, he’s had to personally kick off a handful of passengers for unruly behavior while on the ground, some of whom were likely banned by the airline for their behavior.
One incident occurred in Los Angeles where a gate agent notified the pilot of a potentially problematic passenger, based on her mask’s messaging. “It said ‘fuck you’ right in big bold yellow letters,” he said.
The passenger ultimately turned the mask inside out at the request of the flight’s gate agent. Once on board, the pilot left the cockpit with the agent to speak to the problem passenger and confirm that she wouldn’t be an issue.
“No, captain, I told you I got it,” he remembered the passenger as saying. But after the encounter, the pilot heard the passenger refer to the agent as a “Karen.”
She was kicked off the plane and relegated to the next available flight.
Another incident occurred on a flight where two passengers tried to self-upgrade into an extra-legroom section. They were told they couldn’t and started flouting the mask rule, trying to take advantage of the eating and drinking loophole by eating Skittles.
Flight attendants reminded the couple to mask up in between bites, to which the female passenger responded: “Well, yeah, we’re eating now, bitch, so you can just fuck off.” The aircraft was nearing the runway for departure when the flight attendants made the decision to call the cockpit and get the passengers off the plane.
“I felt like the dad driving to the resort, turning around, swatting the kids, saying, ‘if you don’t settle down, I’m just going to turn this car around,” the pilot said.
Had the incident happened while in the air, a decision would have been made as to whether to continue on to the destination or divert.
Dennis Tajer, a captain for American Airlines and spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, told Insider that a diversion would only be considered if a problem is uncontainable and the distraction was too great to continue on with a flight.
“Our goal in any unruly passenger incidents is to deescalate and contain [to] keep everybody safe,” Tajer said of diversions. “If for some reason that containment is in question, then it would be the captain’s ultimate call after consultation with [airline] security.”
Pilots also can’t leave the cockpit to deal with these problems directly as it would compromise the integrity of cockpit security and serve as an additional distraction from flying the plane. “We are on full alert at all times for all possibilities,” Tajer said of the cockpit environment.
Reporting unruly passengers takes away from that awareness, and also includes contacting dispatchers on the ground. Relevant departments and individuals are also looped in, taking them away from their primary work responsibilities.
“These [disruptive] people took attention away from several people who were just trying to operate the flight,” the anonymous pilot said.
Like many, he doesn’t want to have to wear a mask on an airplane but tells Insider that he has to ensure the safety of the aircraft and enforce the rules that his airline sets.
“I don’t like wearing the mask, I don’t want to wear the mask, I hate asking them to wear the mask,” he said. “But we don’t have any choice at this point.”