Four people are facing nearly $70,000 in civil fines for clashing with airline crews over mask requirements and other safety instructions on recent flights, part of what the Federal Aviation Administration called a “disturbing increase” in the number of unruly passengers who have returned to the skies with the easing of pandemic restrictions.
The latest round of proposed fines, which passengers have 30 days to contest, came just days after the FAA said that it had received more than 1,300 unruly-passenger reports from airlines since February. In the previous decade, the agency said, it took enforcement actions against 1,300 passengers total.
“We will not tolerate interfering with a flight crew and the performance of their safety duties,” Stephen Dickson, the administrator of the FAA, said on Twitter on May 3. “Period.”
None of the passengers now facing fines were identified by the FAA, which this year imposed a zero-tolerance policy for interfering with or assaulting flight attendants that carries a fine of up to $35,000 and possible jail time.
One of the passengers, a woman who was traveling from the Dominican Republic on a JetBlue flight bound for New York on Feb. 7, refused to comply with instructions to wear a mask aboard the plane, hurled an empty liquor bottle that almost hit another passenger, threw food and shouted obscenities at flight attendants, according to the FAA.
The woman grabbed the arm of a flight attendant and hurt her arm, and she struck the arm of another flight attendant twice and scratched that crew member’s hand, causing the flight to return to the Dominican Republic, the FAA said last week. It recommended a fine of $32,750 for the woman.
So far, the FAA has identified potential violations in about 260 of the 1,300 cases referred by airlines, a spokesman for the agency said in an email Sunday. Officials have begun enforcement actions in 20 of the cases and are preparing a number of additional enforcement actions, the spokesman said.
In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, there were 142 enforcement actions that stemmed from unruly passengers, according to the FAA. There were 159 in 2018, and 91 in 2017.
In an opinion column Sunday on NBCNews.com, Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, attributed the rising tensions in the skies to the politically charged atmosphere over health protocols.
“What’s causing these incidents?” she asked. “Overwhelmingly, it’s passengers who refuse to wear masks.”
Nelson said that flight attendants would never tell passengers that it was a matter of personal choice to wear oxygen masks in the event of cabin depressurization or seat belts in case of turbulence. The same is true now for wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus.
“We’re also trained to help stop the spread of infectious disease,” she said. “We’re not just enforcing these long-overdue mask policies because we have to: We understand that masks are a way we keep ourselves and each other safe. And we’re grateful policymakers are backing us up.”
In April, the Transportation Security Administration extended a requirement for airline passengers to wear masks on commercial flights and at U.S. airports through Sept. 13. The order had been scheduled to expire May 11.
Last month, Alaska Airlines said that it had suspended an Alaska state senator from its flights for violating its mask policies. The lawmaker, Lora Reinbold, a Republican, was captured on video arguing with employees at Juneau International Airport about the airline’s mask rules, according to footage posted on Twitter.
In response to the dispute, a woman who identified herself as an Alaska Airlines flight attendant said on Twitter that episodes like the one involving Reinbold were a reason that she had resigned.
“It has been an exhausting time for all the employees who are just trying to do their job according to their company’s policies,” the woman, Angela Hagedorn, said April 26. “The constant arguing and pushback from guests, it’s ridiculous.”
As part of the latest round of fines recommended by the FAA, the agency said that a male passenger aboard a Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Sacramento, California, on Jan. 26 refused to comply with a flight attendant’s instructions to wear a mask over his nose and mouth. The man became combative and used offensive language when a second flight attendant told him he was required to wear a mask, according to the FAA, which said that the passenger hit one of the flight attendants with his bags when he was ordered to leave the plane. Officials recommended a $16,500 fine for the man.
On Dec. 22, a Delta Air Lines flight from Minneapolis to Philadelphia returned to the airport after a female passenger began walking up and down the aisle during takeoff and refused to return to her seat, the FAA said. A $9,000 fine was recommended for the woman, who the agency said told the crew repeatedly that she wanted to get off the plane.
A Jan. 30 flight from Bozeman, Montana, to Seattle also returned to the airport after a male passenger refused to put on a mask, according to the FAA, which also recommended a $9,000 fine in his case.