Flight attendants describe 'unprecedented' violence as travel returns and passenger aggression soars

  • 7 flight attendants told Insider the rise in passenger violence has worsened their mental health.
  • Flight attendants said the aggression stems from a divisive political climate.
  • Some flight attendants want airlines to offer free, on-demand mental health services.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When Nas Lewis, a Chicago-based flight attendant, went to cut off an aggressive, intoxicated passenger from drinking more alcohol, he told her: “If I had a Black Lives Matter shirt on, this wouldn’t be a problem.”

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Lewis, who is a woman of color, was taken aback and said she found the situation emotionally abusive. The aggression later escalated to where Lewis had to call the police to remove the passenger from the aircraft.

Flight attendants across the country are grappling with the rise in passenger aggression and violence on aircrafts over the last few months. Since January 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration has received 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, most of which involve travelers refusing to comply with the federal mask mandate.

The agency started keeping track of unruly passenger reports last year after aggression over mask compliance rose, NPR reported. FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor told the outlet the number of reports are “significantly higher” than in the past.

Flight attendants appear to be bearing the brunt of passenger aggression. One flight attendant for Southwest Airlines said she lost two teeth from an assault by a passenger. The FAA charged another traveler $15,000 for pushing and shoving an Alaska Airlines flight attendant documenting which passengers had not worn face masks.

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Seven flight attendants from major US carriers told Insider they had experienced increased aggression from passengers as travel rebounds in the US. Though some of the sources for this story requested to be anonymous and not share the name of their employer so they could speak without fear of retaliation, Insider confirmed their identities and proof of employment. All flight attendants said their mental health has suffered as a result of the aggression.

A Los Angeles-based flight attendant of 29 years said she has never seen anything like the current level of aggression at any other time in her career.

“It is truly unprecedented,” she said.

Flight attendants worry they are facing a mental health crisis due to rising tensions between passengers and crew.

Lewis is the founder of th|AIR|apy, a non-profit dedicated to helping flight attendants manage their mental health.

She launched the company in 2019 as a Facebook group when she felt overwhelmed with the stress of commuting to work and leaving her children during flights, and the group now has 3,000 active members.

Lewis told Insider she’s seen a rise in activity in th|AIR|apy support groups over the last three months. Flight attendants have posted photos of themselves crying and told Lewis they had engaged in self-harm and suicide idealization.

Lewis said three flight attendants who were a part of th|AIR|apy died by suicide over the past year.

One New York City-based flight attendant told Insider she used to love her job, even with the ups and downs – but now she feels constantly anxious and worried about whether she’ll have to deal with violent passengers on her next flight.

“Since we’re in a plane up in the sky it’s really scary to feel like you don’t have control of the situation,” she said.

In the last few months, she’s noticed other flight attendants experiencing increased stress. News outlets reported on one off-duty attendant who was taken to the hospital after exhibiting signs of mental illness when he assaulted crew members on a flight.

The flight attendant from New York told Insider that focusing on self-care and mental health has helped her stay positive during this time. She said she stopped drinking as much alcohol, and keeps herself calm by spending time with her coworkers and friends and by going outside.

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Flight attendants attribute passenger aggression to alcohol, mask enforcement, and a divided political climate.

Some airlines have limited alcohol offerings to curb passenger violence.

Southwest announced it would not resume alcohol service until the end of July due to the recent surge in disruptions by passengers. United said it would only offer beer, wine, and hard seltzer on flights longer than 800 miles, and American has suspended alcohol in the main cabin altogether.

Many flight attendants told Insider particularly aggressive passengers had been drinking alcohol prior to or during the flight.

Other flight attendants previously told Insider the pandemic made passengers more aggressive because of differences in mask policies throughout the country and a divisive political culture.

Colleen Burns, a representative with the Association of Flight Attendants union, said she’s faced verbal harassment from passengers numerous times, most of the time with people who were “stone cold sober.” But the instance of aggression that shocked her the most was watching a man crawl over an elderly, non-ambulatory woman after complaining she removed her mask to eat.

“I’ve never seen someone treating somebody else with a lack of respect,” Burns told Insider.

“It seems that everybody is angry at everybody 24/7,” she added. “One little thing sets them over the edge, either they’re upset they have to wear the mask or they’re upset someone else isn’t wearing the mask.”

Flight attendants are calling for better protections from airlines and the government

One San Francisco-based flight attendant said before the escalation of tension on board, she had more patience with passengers; she assumed any misbehavior was due to feeling stressed by travel and would not escalate to real violence.

Now, she and the rest of her crew members have lost patience and adopted a “zero tolerance” policy to all aggression.

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“I’m very sad that passengers have so much disrespect and disregard for their fellow passengers and crew,” she said. “Flying used to be glamorous and fun. And it still can be – if the attitude of travelers changes.”

Lewis said she’s trying to help as many flight attendants as possible with th|AIR|apy’s resources, but urges airlines to instruct passengers on ways to keep flight attendants safe and offer free, on-demand mental health services for crew members.

Burns commended the FAA, which recently proposed $100,000 in fines for several unruly and dangerous passengers, for investigating instances of violence against flight attendants. The New York City-based flight attendant said she’d love to see the government go further by writing bills that ensure harsher consequences for passengers that misbehave.

Daz, a Las Vegas-based flight attendant, said he has not felt threatened or unprotected by the rise in violence due to learning conflict resolution skills and self-defense training from his airline.

But he said he does feel for the majority of his passengers who are compliant with federal mask regulations that suffer delays when violence and aggression occurs.

“There are still federal regulations that require a mask to be worn at all times on our aircraft,” he told Insider. “Until this is lifted, please just follow the rules.”

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