Alcohol is a major factor in the increase in aviation incidents: NPR

NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, about what appears to be an increase in incidents involving unruly air passengers.


More than a thousand Americans die from COVID-19 every day, and yet many people are still struggling with the mandates put in place to keep them safe. This is especially true on airlines, where some people literally fight. The Federal Aviation Administration has reported more than 3,900 incidents involving unruly passengers this year alone. That’s a huge jump from previous years, even taking into account the recent downturn in air travel. And more than half of these incidents are related to the wearing of masks.

And a new survey from the association that represents flight attendants found that 85% of flight attendants say they had to deal with disruptive passengers in 2021. And nearly one in five has even had physical altercations with passengers. messy passengers. We wanted to know more about this from the perspective of some of the people forced to deal with it. So we called Sara Nelson. She is the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, and she is with us now.

Sara Nelson, thank you very much for being with us.

SARA NELSON: I’m happy to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, I guess a lot of people listening to our conversation will have seen, you know, TV reports, videos of some of these encounters. But I wonder what you heard from the flight attendants. How often do they deal with this and if there are any specific incidents that stood out for you?

NELSON: We’ve never seen this number of incidents in the sky. And the difference here is that we are trained in de-escalation tactics. We are trained to deal with unruly passengers. But this is not a one-off incident. Every day when flight attendants put on their uniforms, they wonder: is this the day I’m going to get punched in the face? It’s just that mundane.

And what they are telling us is that it is the result of full planes and people being told that masks are a political issue rather than a public health necessity. We have more people drinking and bringing these drinks on board, which you are not allowed to do under federal regulations. After the last year and a half that we’ve had and the mixed messages from leadership all around this pandemic and the stress people have been through over the past year – and we’re often at the forefront of everything that’s going on socially or politically in the country.

And what we see is, you know, people are upset. They are at their wit’s end. We told people we disagreed with each other and told them that the flight attendants and the work that we do and the – what we have to enforce on board interferes with their rights. But I don’t think we are alone. I think this happens in grocery stores and post offices and …

MARTIN: Sporting events and other places where people …

NELSON: All – exactly, exactly.

MARTIN: So let me ask you a question about it. You mentioned masks. More than half – that is – according to FAA data, more than half of these incidents are mask-related. And it seems to start there, but you also touched on the role of alcohol. The FAA has called on airports to discourage the sale of take-out alcoholic beverages. Do these two things go together? I mean, what’s the game and like, what’s the fuel?

NELSON: Alcohol is absolutely a contributor. So I don’t mean to say that alcohol is always the cause of these events, but alcohol is the biggest contributor. So let’s face it, people come back to airports and they haven’t been on a plane in a while. They don’t really remember or know that in the pressurized air at 8,000 feet, alcohol can affect you more. And when there are delays at the airport, what do people do? They’re setting there drinking.

So anything we can do to minimize alcohol consumption before people get on the plane or on the plane is just going to help reduce these incidents. And the more we can lift the aid and make it a really socially unacceptable thing to do on an airplane, the better off we’ll be. We don’t have our regular passengers just to show people how the program works. So that makes it very difficult. So passengers can be very helpful in identifying this for us and being good witnesses.

MARTIN: Well, I don’t know if you really want to go, but I want to – if you do, I want to hear it. Is that part of what you are saying – that the traveling public is different, that a lot of regular business passengers or people traveling – who are frequent travelers do not travel and that maybe a lot of people who are currently on planes are not used to flying and may not have absorbed some of the standards. Is that part of what you’re saying?

NELSON: Well, anytime someone doesn’t really know the procedures, I mean, just remember, it’s a really different space. You cannot bring your gun or knife to our workplace. You have to practically strip down to show that you are not a security threat. You have to follow certain rules and regulations. And if you don’t really know the program and don’t know what to expect, it can also lead to a lot of anxiety. So we often just answer people’s questions. It’s not like the people who fly are, you know, worse people than what we would normally have on airplanes. But when people know the programs …

MARTIN: I’m not saying there was.

NELSON: (Laughs).

MARTIN: I can make a value judgment. But what I’m saying is – do you see in part that the people who steal are not people who are used to stealing? Is this partly what contributes to this?

NELSON: Absolutely. And I want to be really clear. Some people got it wrong when you said that and said that, you know, these are people who don’t know how to behave. This is not what we are saying at all. Thanks for being so clear because it’s really about the fact that people just don’t know what to expect. And before the coronavirus, at least 30% of people were regular travelers. And what happens in these cases is that the rest of the crowd is sort of watching what the others are doing. It’s a bit like following the leader. It is much more trying when people just don’t know about the program and don’t know what to expect. And we must continue to remind people what to do.

MARTIN: Interesting. So before I let you go, in January, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson announced a zero-tolerance policy against disruptive behavior on commercial flights, but preventing the agency from issuing warnings and switch to the application instead. But are there other things you think the FAA should be doing? Are there any changes that you think need to be made?

NELSON: Well listen, the FAA needs more funding for more investigators and to move faster on these reports. That’s for sure. But they do have a significant number of reports that the DOJ can retrieve and use to initiate criminal proceedings. Under the law, we have the ability to impose fines of up to $ 35,000 per incident – and that’s what the FAA has done – but also to prosecute criminally. And people can face up to 20 years in prison.

With all the drinking out there, you know, that’s a real metaphor. We need to sober up here. And what we find is that when the consequences are very clear and people go to jail, it has a real deterrent effect. And people start to sober up very quickly. So there needs to be better coordination within government to deal with this problem and to make it very clear to the public what the rules are, why they are in place and what the consequences are if you don’t do your part.

MARTIN: It was Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. Sara Nelson, thank you very much for talking to us.

NELSON: Thanks.

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