As Americans have begun to emerge from quarantine ready to make up for lost time, the airline industry has reported a dramatic increase in disruptive and sometimes aggressive behavior from passengers. In many of these cases, passengers have quarreled with their flight attendants over mask use. In other cases, people have been just plain rowdy. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were as many reports of passenger misconduct in just three months as there were in the whole decade before that. One flight attendant union president called the surge “unprecedented.” In mid-May, a passenger who was asked to put on a seatbelt punched a flight attendant and knocked out two of her teeth. Southwest and American Airlines announced they were suspending alcohol service in the main cabins to try to tamp down the chaos.
To get a sense of what air travel has been like for the cabin crews witnessing post-lockdown Americans at their most boisterous—and sometimes ugliest—Slate spoke with Brian, a flight attendant based out of San Francisco and working for Alaska Airlines. Brian (not his real name) worked as a flight attendant for five years before taking a voluntary furlough during the pandemic. He was recalled in January and has been working since. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: What’s it been like since you returned from furlough?
Brian: One of the things that I hate the most about the job—there are not many—is the policing aspect. I feel that adults shouldn’t have to be policed. And people looking to score points or make political statements by not wearing a mask—I don’t relate well to that. And so I was worried about having to kind of constantly be engaging in conflict. And I have not found that to be the case with most people. On most flights that I work, it seems totally to be overblown. So basically, most things are OK, most of the time.
How much have you had to deal with those people who are trying to make statements by refusing to wear masks?
Every flight, you definitely need to remind people to pull up to your mouth. I think it’s mostly forgetfulness. But actual conflict, people who want to make a point or try to push your limits—maybe one in 10 flights, you’ll have somebody like that.
There was this one guy on a flight from Seattle to Dallas, and he just would not keep his mask on. He would pull it up there in front of us, and then just put it back down once we were out of sight. We have a card system at my airline. We didn’t have it before COVID. The yellow card essentially tells you you’ve been found to be in violation of federal mandates by the TSA and we’re going to report this incident, and there could be follow-up and penalties. We decided to present him with the yellow card, and he just took it and didn’t say anything or make a fuss. So it was low drama. I felt lucky I was working with a crew where nobody was a high-conflict person who wanted to engage on the airplane. One of the most dangerous things about the job is if you choose to engage somebody who’s defying instructions on the airplane. That can be opening a can of worms.
Is it a common feeling among flight attendants that the mask issue isn’t a big deal?
Everybody else that I’ve asked, it really just hasn’t been that bad. I feel like I’m lucky to be based in and do a lot of my flying on the West Coast. Portland, Seattle, L.A., San Diego were all pretty good about complaints. It was only flying to certain destinations where the mask problem and liquor problems got to be more of an issue. And we don’t have as many of those routes. Maybe excluding Vegas. Vegas is always a problem.
Has there been much chatter about the assault on the Southwest flight attendant?
It’s just like, “Oh, my God, can you believe it?” Sort of shock and rage. We’re a group that very much likes to dramatize, and there are real problems going on with aviation, but I don’t think anyone’s really changing their behavior based on what’s going on.
What do you think of Southwest and American’s decision to suspend alcohol service because of all this?
I have mixed feelings about it. Generally speaking, it’s no big deal, most people can control themselves with alcohol. But it’s a touchy subject, because we’re in a self-contained tube and we’re up in the air and away from emergency services should shit hit the fan. So I don’t mind serving alcohol, but I also understand. When somebody cannot control themselves well and is misbehaving in that environment, it can become dangerous for, you know, over 100 people. It’s one of those things where the headlines probably scare people more than is the reality, but it is a real problem.
Have you noticed any other ways that passengers have been behaving unusually recently?
There is definitely a segment of the population that typically has not traveled much that is traveling right now. And there’s a higher percentage of people who are completely inexperienced with traveling on an airplane. And it’s kind of funny. People are just bumbling a lot more. You know how with overhead bins, for example, you want to put your bag in in a way where you take up less space? There are a lot of people who put a carry-on bag in sideways. That’s a small thing, but it creates conflict, because people feel entitled to the overhead bin space. Or rows 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, if they’re sitting in the main cabin, feel entitled to the first-class lavatory. That’s always the case, but these days it’s quite a bit more, so you have to police that a little bit. Or you have people who say, “Oh, can I get milk for my baby?” Or people go on a six-hour flight and have no food for those children. You probably paid $94 online for your ticket—why would you think that you’re getting a meal out of this?
I did notice on a flight I took a couple weeks ago that there was someone on my aisle who had never flown before.
I would say most flights, we have at least one or two guests who have never flown before. It definitely is happening a lot more these days. And most of those interactions are fun. It’s kind of fun to see somebody experiencing flight for the first time. I mean, I love flying, I always have. And so for me, one of the fun parts of the job is to handhold people who’ve never done it before and check in with them. How was the takeoff? And all that. That’s one of the nice parts of the job.
When do you foresee things feeling more normal?
Currently, the TSA is mandating mask use through September. I feel like the next few months are going to be tough. For example, right now, I’m in Anchorage. Alaska doesn’t have any mask mandates anymore, and as the summer goes on and people are going to be traveling, people get more hesitant to put the mask on in the airport, and then the airplane, and keep it on. I can see that already happening on the airplane. And with my co-workers, even. All of that is going to keep being difficult.