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Unruly Behavior From Plane Passengers Has Never Been This Bad, Says Flight Attendant Union Chief

Carlo Allegri | Reuters
  • Passenger behavior on airplanes is "complete nuts" and out of control, flight attendant union leader Sara Nelson told CNBC at the start of the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
  • "This is an environment that we just haven't seen before, and we can't wait for it to be over," Nelson said.
  • Opposition to the federal coronavirus mask mandate is a major reason for the spike in unruly behavior.

Incidents of unruly behavior from airplane passengers has risen to an unprecedented level this year, union leader Sara Nelson told CNBC on Friday, the start of the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

"This is an environment that we just haven't seen before, and we can't wait for it to be over," the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said on "Squawk Box."

The behavior has become "complete nuts," added Nelson, whose union represents around 50,000 cabin crew members across more than a dozen carriers. "It's a constant combative attitude. ... It's got to stop."

Nelson's comments follow a recent violent confrontation that resulted in a Southwest Airlines flight attendant sustaining facial injuries and losing two teeth. In a statement to NBC News earlier this week, Southwest said the passenger "repeatedly ignored standard inflight instructions and became verbally and physically abusive upon landing."

A 28-year-old woman has been charged with felony battery in the incident, which occurred on a Sacramento to San Diego flight.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday it has received around 2,500 reports of unruly passenger behavior since Jan. 1, roughly three-quarters of which involve failure to adhere to the federal face mask mandate that has been instituted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That's more than 20 times higher than what's normally recorded in an entire year, Nelson told CNBC. She noted the role masks are playing in the surge and expressed disappointment that health protocols on planes are seen as "a political issue."

The federal mask requirement is on the books until Sept. 14, and the FAA intends to keep its zero-tolerance policy for passenger disturbances in place as long as the mandate applies.

While airline travel has picked up in recent months as Covid vaccinations become more available, TSA checkpoint data shows travel is still notably below 2019 levels.

"Typically what flight attendants will do, when we see a conflict arise on the plane, we're trained to deescalate. We look for our helpers," Nelson said. However, she said the passenger mix is different than pre-Covid.

"It's very difficult when you don't have people on the plane who are regularly flying, who sort of know the program, who are our typical people that we'd go to, at least, create peer pressure but also help to try to calm down these incidents," she said.

Nelson said increased messaging around the consequences for passengers who act out — such as FAA fines — would be helpful. That includes not only on-board messages from the flight captain, but also throughout airports, she said.

Temporary restrictions on alcohol sales also would be beneficial, Nelson said.

"A lot of times these events are exacerbated by alcohol, so we've been asking the government and the airlines to make sure they're not selling alcohol right now because that's only adding to the problem that is clearly out of control."

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