Frequent readers of Live and Let’s Fly would be forgiven for thinking this luxury + adventure travel blog has turned into a tabloid covering daily onboard antics of poorly-behaved passengers on commercial flights. But while we go where the news goes, there is no denying we are in a period of protracted misbehavior onboard. Will this all go away once the mask mandate expires? Or is there something deeper going on?
The Root Cause Of Airplane Misconduct
The statistics are clear enough. The Federal Aviation Administration had received 2,900 reports of unruly passenger behavior since January 1, 2021. 2,200 of those were mask-related incidents. That’s 76%.
Between 2010 and 2020, the FAA only investigated a total of 1,548 unruly passenger cases.
So clearly we can quantitatively state there has been a surge in cases in the pandemic era and the majority are tied to masks.
But that doesn’t necessarily explain the root cause.
Sara Nelson, the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) blames conflicting messages from government leaders.
“There is just this level of confusion that also comes into play…They have been led to believe that the safety steps we are taking are a political decision rather than a public health necessity. That has really been the thing that has lit a match to the kindling that existed before.”
Nelson always brings a degree of partisanship into the discussion and alleges that disturbances are more likely to originate in more Republican-dominated places.
“There tends to be greater incidents where you are flying out of a place where local and state leaders have said that the pandemic is a hoax, that masks are not necessary, all of those things.”
I’ve asked the AFA if they have statistics to back that up, because most of the incidents we have covered lately on Live and Let’s Fly have originated in so-called “blue” states like California.
- Delta Air Lines white helmet incident – Los Angeles
- Delta Air Lines drunk passenger incident – Los Angeles
- American Airlines flight attendant rant – Los Angeles
- Southwest Airlines flight attendant attack – Sacramento
- JetBlue cocaine incident – New York
Nevertheless, I think Nelson is correct that the cause is not the masks themselves, but frustration over the indignity of the travel experience. That includes masks, but also smaller seats, less legroom, lack of service onboard, and full planes. All of that creates an environment that produces the sort of incidents we’ve seen. But when Nelson condemns anti-maskers but in the same breath resists restoring food and drinks onboard, her “solution” only exacerbates the problem.
So while there is never any excuse for misbehavior onboard, including failing to abide by the federal mask mandate, I do think we will see a return to “normalcy” once the federal mask mandate expires and airlines again offer a variety of food and drinks for purchase onboard, including alcohol.
Things will get worse before they get better. That’s because planes are packed once again on U.S. domestic flights. Prices are through the roof, open middle seats are gone, and onboard services have to returned. Throw in a fundamental mistrust of government amongst a subset of passengers and a view of masks as muzzles of freedom and we have all the ingredients for a summer of discontent. Plus the usual alcohol and mental health issues.
The good news is that the vast majority of flights are going to be just fine. We tend to forget that when looking at news-grabbing headlines. Yesterday, the TSA screened over 2,000,000 passengers. Yes, over two million in one day alone…compared to a total of 2,900 incidents onboard over the last six months.
So you likely have nothing to worry about anyway. Still, the trend line is not encouraging.