Anger in the air: FAA cracks down on unruly passengers, here’s what’s fueling the fights

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — There appears to be growing anger in the air.

As the delta COVID-19 variant surges, so too are fights on flights. You may have seen various viral videos of out-of-control passengers in the sky. The anger is made worse by alcohol, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which sent letters to airports across the country last week. The FAA is asking for a crackdown on “to go” drinks sold at restaurants that it says passengers are sneaking onboard planes.

The FAA has made clear that unruly travelers will face stiff fines in the tens of thousands of dollars, and can be banned from flying.

In an effort to prevent future incidents, the FAA is using children and social media memes to shame problem passengers.

One meme depicts an old woman saying: “DON’T embarrass me! I raised you better than to act that way!”

“That is so unsafe,” one child says in a public service announcement.

“They should stop,” another kid says.

At Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, KXAN found several travelers, like Rock Bruno, ignoring the federal requirement to mask up.

“I’m a free American,” said Bruno, who is from Austin. “And, I’m going to walk around without it until someone throws me out.”

The vast majority of travelers, however, were wearing masks.

“Quit being a baby and just wear the mask,” said Eddie Cairns, who is in town from California for a bachelor party. “It doesn’t hurt. It’s not that big of a deal.”

Thousands banned, fined

KXAN reached out to eight airlines and found more than 2,100 passengers banned from flying for refusing to comply.

  • Delta: 1400+ passengers placed on No-Fly list since June 2020
  • Alaska: 707 passengers currently on ban list
  • American: “We do not have any numbers to share. We expect our customers to comply with our policies when they choose to fly with us, and we take action when that is not the case.”
  • Southwest: “We don’t discuss in specific terms any of our security protocols, including the number of previous Customers who no longer are welcome to travel with us for individually specific circumstances following their behavior during past travel.”

United, JetBlue, Frontier and Spirit Airlines did not respond to a request for information, but we will update this story when they do.

The FAA is taking a “zero tolerance” approach when it comes to enforcement. Since Jan. 1, 2021, the agency received approximately 3,271 reports of unruly passengers and 2,475 reports of passengers refusing to wear masks. The FAA has identified potential violations in 540 cases and initiated enforcement action in 83 cases so far.

That has resulted in more than $682,000 in proposed fines.

This year, $44,500 in fines were issued to three passengers flying in and out of Texas. That includes a traveler flying out of Dallas in February who was slapped with a $21,000 citation for repeatedly refusing to wear a face mask, according to the FAA.

Read descriptions of each incident, including a flight that had to be diverted to Austin, below:

Push to extend mandatory masking on planes

“What we found is that masks really do have a tremendous impact on the transmission of the disease,” said Dr. Leonard Marcus, with the Aviation Public Health Initiative at Harvard University.

Dr. Marcus has studied the issue extensively and found masks work in reducing the spread of the virus in airports and planes.

With Austin in stage five and the delta variant spreading, he says the government should extend the federal transit mask mandate which is set to expire on Sept. 13.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “I think we’re going to have to continue the mask mandate until we’re able to significantly increase the number of people that are vaccinated and get a hold on the pandemic.”

When it comes to unruly passengers, he applauds the FAA’s aggressive approach.

“It can be very dangerous,” he said. “I think it’s important to send a very clear message that that behavior will not be tolerated.”

KXAN is pressing for answers on whether the federal mask mandate will be extended. The TSA said the “mask mandate is a presidential executive order so an extension would have to come from the president.” We reached out to the White House and will update this story when it responds. The CDC referred us to Homeland Security, which said: “We don’t have any announcements for you at this time.”

For now, the TSA says travelers will not be allowed to fly “if they refuse to wear their facemask” at TSA airport security check-in.

Several major airlines, including Austin’s largest carrier, would not say if they will continue enforcing masks if the federal order expires.

“Southwest’s mask policy predates the federal mandate requiring masking throughout airports and airplanes during the entirety of a journey,” said a Southwest Airlines spokesperson. “We don’t have anything to share today regarding any changes to our policy.”

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