US House panel holds hearing on surge in violence on flights

Airline employees in the US have been facing a surge of harassment and violence in recent months, including many related to conflicts over mask-wearing mandates.

In a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, airline employees and aviation experts laid out the scope of the problem.

Data compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) showed that investigations of plane passengers’ behavior has hit record levels. In 2019, 146 passenger investigations were initiated. In 2020, that number rose slightly to 183. In comparison, 789 investigations have already been launched in 2021, with three months still left in the year.

According to the FAA, there have been 4,385 reports of unruly plane passengers as of this year, and 3,199 of those incidents were related to mask-wearing policies. More than 85% of attendants have dealt with unruly passengers in the first six months of 2021, according to the FAA, while nearly one in five attendants “reported experiencing a physical incident”.

The House transportation and infrastructure subcommittee chairman, Democrat Rick Larsen, emphasized that airlines and the federal government must work together to protect flight attendants, who often suffer the consequences of passenger violence.

Larsen noted that flight attendants have reported having to endure racial epithets, kicking, biting and spitting from passengers in recent months, as reports of unruly behavior have soared.

This summer, a video of a passenger bound to his seat with duct tape after he acted aggressively and allegedly grabbed a flight attendant’s breasts was shared widely. The incident came less than a month after a woman was restrained with tape and “flex cuffs” during an American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Charlotte, after she allegedly attempted to open the plane’s doors.

The woman also “physically assaulted, bit and caused injury to a flight attendant”, USA Today reported.

At the subcommittee hearing, Teddy Andrews, a flight attendant, recounted some of the violence that he and his coworkers have endured in recent months. During one flight, a passenger threw racial slurs at Andrews, who is Black, after he encouraged the man to wear his face mask.

According to Andrews, the man said to him: “N-word, I don’t have to listen to a damn thing you say. This is a free country.”

The FAA noted that the rate of violent flight incidents has declined since the start of the year but remains alarmingly high. The agency is unable to carry out criminal charges but can impose fines on passengers.

“Our work is having an impact and the trend is moving in the right direction. But we need the progress to continue. This remains a serious safety threat, and one incident is one too many,” the FAA administrator, Steve Dickson, said in a statement ahead of today’s hearing.

“The FAA will continue its zero tolerance policy, keep its public awareness campaign going, and keep pushing and partnering with everyone in the aviation system to do more. We appreciate the tremendous work of all our partners in the airline, airport, labor and law enforcement communities.”

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