ATLANTA — Airline pa ssengers are facing record federal fines for lashing out at 30,000 feet amid conflicts over mask mandates, flight cancellations and because of behaviors fueled by the consumption of alcohol.
The Federal Aviation Administration has slapped dozens of unruly passengers with fines amounting to more than $1 million so far in 2021, the agency announced Thursday. The total has already reached the highest ever in a single year, according to the FAA.
The issue has frustrated flight attendants, airlines and federal authorities — and heightened the tension and stress of flying amid a pandemic — but the prospect of losing flight privileges and hefty fines hasn’t deterred thousands of people reported for disruptive behavior.
Travelers have reportedly punched crew members or other passengers, thrown things at people and tried to break into the cockpit.
“As the number of passengers traveling has increased, so has the number of unruly and unsafe behavior incidents on planes and in airports,” according to FAA administrator Steve Dickson.
So far this year, the FAA has fielded 3,889 reports of unruly passengers, including 2,867 related to masks. In response, the agency started 682 investigations in 2021 to date. That’s the most on record dating back to 1995, and marks a sharp increase from 183 in 2020 and 146 in 2019.
“The stress level is higher than we’ve ever seen it. People are simply more frazzled than we’ve ever seen,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, while announcing results of a recent survey on unruly passenger incidents. The stressors of the pandemic and economic uncertainties are contributing factors, she said.
The highest federal fine so far — $52,500 — was levied against a Delta passenger who struck a flight attendant and tried to open a cockpit door on a flight from Honolulu to Seattle on Dec. 23, 2020.
More recent cases include two Delta Connection passengers, one on a flight from Atlanta in March and another in April who refused to comply with the mask mandate and now face fines of $9,000 and $10,500, respectively.
In another incident, a Frontier Airlines passenger on a Jan. 3 flight from Atlanta to New York tried to get into the flight deck by “physically assaulting two flight attendants, threatening to kill one of them, and demanding them to open the door,” according to the FAA. That passenger faces a proposed fine of $30,000.
Those are three of 34 unruly passenger cases amounting to $531,545 in proposed civil penalties announced by the FAA Thursday.
And mask conflicts in the air are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. The Transportation Security Administration, which requires face masks on flights and in airports, this week said it plans to extend the mandate until Jan. 18, 2022, instead of allowing it to expire under the previous end date of Sept. 13.
Key drivers for the increase in incidents and enforcement this year are the FAA’s “zero tolerance” policy for unruly and dangerous behavior on airline flights in place since Jan. 13, and the mask mandate in place since Feb. 1 after an executive order from President Joe Biden.
Airlines have had policies requiring masks on board since mid-2020 and have put thousands of disruptive passengers on their no-fly lists for noncompliance. Atlanta-based Delta has put more than 1,500 travelers on its no fly list for not complying with its mask policy. Delta may also terminate passengers’ SkyMiles frequent flier memberships “on the basis of documented abusive behavior.” The airline issued a statement supporting the extension of the federal mask mandate and the FAA’s “continued support of our customers and crews.”