In 2021, the United States (US) has experienced a surge in unruly passenger behaviour on board flights, including verbal and physical assaults against fellow passengers and crew, damage of airline property, violations of the face mask mandate and other disruptive, dangerous and/or offensive behaviour. This behaviour has had a significant impact on the industry, particularly on cabin crew – who must deal with incidents in the isolation of aircraft cabins – and on airlines in general, with incidents leading to delays and flight diversions as well as negative press. The ongoing heightened levels of unruly passenger incidents in the US have led to a range of responses by airlines, industry unions and regulatory bodies, including the suspension of alcohol sales by airlines (also a response to the COVID-19 pandemic) and the introduction of high civil penalties.

Osprey Flight Solutions has supported the industry through the collection of relevant data and by issuing in-depth alerts highlighting significant incidents, relevant regulatory changes and causative factors such as political influences and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the face mask mandate and alcohol sale suspensions.

Osprey graph showing open-source unruly passenger reports between August 2020 and August 2021

Unruly Passenger Timeline

The timeline below includes significant developments relating to the unruly passenger crisis in the US, including regulatory, airline and union responses as well as significant unruly passenger incidents that prompted those responses. It also includes Osprey’s output and support to the industry.

6 January: Significant unruly passenger incident

A significant number of unruly passenger incidents are reported by airlines around 6 January, when Donald Trump supporters gathered in Washington DC to protest and disrupt the electoral vote-counting process, resulting in the storming of the US Capitol. In response, airlines suspend alcohol service and ban the transport of firearms on flights to Washington DC. 

8 January: Osprey response

Osprey issues an alert highlighting the protest at the US Capitol building, increased security at Washington-area airports, and pro-Trump passengers engaging in politically motivated aggression on flights to the capital. 

13 January: Regulatory response

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduces its “Zero Tolerance Policy”, directing airlines to take legal, rather than simply administrative, enforcement action against “passengers who assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of a crewmember’s duties” set to expire on 30 March.

21 January: Regulatory response

President Biden signs an executive order requiring masks to be worn on all forms of public transport, including on commercial aircraft. 

2 February: Regulatory response

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) implements provisions of President Bidens Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel, requiring all passengers over the age of two to wear a mask. 

16 March: Regulatory response

FAA extends its “Zero Tolerance Policy” as the number of unruly passenger cases reported to the administration by US airlines exceeds 500. 

18 March: Airline response

As part of its response to COVID-19, Southwest Airlines suspends alcohol service on flights to limit interactions between flight attendants and passengers. 

29 March: Osprey response

Osprey issues an alert highlighting increased levels of unruly behaviour on board flights in the USdetailing the latest incidents and the FAA’s extension of the zero-tolerance policy. 

11 April: Osprey response

Osprey‘s analysis of the US unruly passenger crisis is published in Transport Security International. 

30 April: Regulatory response

TSA announces extension of mask mandate to 13 September.

6 May: Osprey response

Osprey issues an update highlighting the latest unruly passenger incidents and TSA’s face mask requirement extension. 

20 May: Airline response

Southwest Airlines announces alcohol service will resume in the summer.

23 May: Significant unruly passenger incident

An unruly passenger attacks a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, causing the loss of two teeth, during a flight from Sacramento to San Diego. 

29 May: Airline response

Media reports state American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are delaying resumption of alcohol service following 23 May incident. 

June: Significant unruly passenger incidents

Long queues and overcrowding reported at most major airports in the US throughout the month as traveller numbers surge but TSA experiences staffing shortages, despite recruitment drives. 

16 June: Osprey response

Osprey update states FAA has received 3,000 unruly passenger reports to date in 2021 and highlights the latest incidentsOsprey analysis suggests overcrowding and queues in airport terminals are likely contributing to hostility in the air.

20 June: Regulatory response

TSA starts publicly releasing reported unruly passenger figures on a weekly basis. 

25 June: Significant unruly passenger incident 

A SkyWest Airlines flight bound for Salt Lake City returns to the gate at Los Angeles International Airport after a male passenger, who had reportedly taken crystal methamphetamine, attempts to access the flight deck before opening the service door and exiting via the emergency slide while the aircraft taxis to the runway. 

28 June: Union response

Following the 25 June unruly passenger incident, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) reiterates calls for regulators to require aircraft to be equipped with secondary barriers to protect the flight deck. 

1 July: Regulatory response

TSA recommences self-defence training for cabin crew, which had been paused due to COVID-19. 

4 July: Osprey response

Osprey update reports latest FAA figures and highlights ALPA‘s call for secondary barriers as well as the resumption of TSA self-defence training for crew. 

6 July: Regulatory response

FAA releases new public safety announcement featuring children speaking negatively about passengers who disrupt flights. A message at the end of the video reads, “Even children know it’s not safe to disrupt a flight.  

13 July: Osprey response

Osprey update highlights FAA’s new public safety announcementthe latest unruly passenger incidents and FAA statistics. Osprey analysis suggests airlines’ suspension of alcohol may have led to increased numbers of unruly passengers consuming their own alcohol in flight.  

20 July: Significant unruly passenger incident

TSA advises a US House panel that there have been more than 85 physical assaults on TSA officers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

22 July: Osprey response

Osprey update reports latest FAA statistics, passenger incident details and highlights TSA’s officer assault statistics. 

27 July: Union response

The president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA states that “[face] masks are just a symbol, they are not the root of what’s going on and that confusion over policieslack of trust in government and mixed messages are fuelling tensions. 

29 July: Union response

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA releases results of a survey, which found that over 85% of flight attendants have dealt with unruly passengers. 

1 August: Significant unruly passenger incident

Frontier crew restrain unruly passenger with duct tape after he punches and gropes crew members on flight from Philadelphia to Miami. 

6 August: Osprey response

An Osprey update states that the FAA received 3,715 reports, provides significant passenger incident details and highlights results of survey released on 29 July. 

6 August: Regulatory response

Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio sends a letter to Administrator Dickson of the FAA asking for clarification of measures that need to be taken to address the increased volumes of unruly passenger incidents. 

13 August: Airline response

Vice President of United Airlines issues memo to flight attendants urging them not to use duct tape when restraining unruly passengers. 

18 August: Osprey response

An Osprey update reports the FAA’s latest figure of 3,889 incidents, highlights DeFazio’s 6 August letter to Dickson, United’s memo to flight attendants regarding the use of duct tape in restraints, and latest incident details.

20 August: Regulatory response

TSA extends the face mask mandate, which was due to expire on 13 September, through 18 January 2022. 

20 August: Airline response

American Airlines extends the suspension of alcohol sales to 18 January.

24 August: Regulatory response

The FAA releases a video on social media, consisting of a series of real audio recordings of flight crews informing air traffic controllers of emergency situations involving unruly passengers.

25 August: Osprey response

An Osprey update reports the FAA’s latest figure of 3,988 incidents and highlights the extension of the TSA face mask mandate and the FAA’s video 

3 September: Osprey response

An Osprey update reports the FAA’s latest figure of 4,090 incidents and highlights latest incident details.

9 September: Regulatory response

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) increases civil penalties for violations of the federal face mask mandate. 

10 September: Airline response

Southwest Airlines releases memo to cabin crew stating alcohol service will not be resumed until at least January in light of mask mandate extension. 

10 September: Osprey response

An Osprey update reports the FAA’s latest figure of 4,184 incidents, highlights latest incidents and the increase in civil penalties for unruly passengers. 

Conclusion 

As per the FAA’s statistics, unruly passenger incidents relating to the face mask mandate account for approximately three quarters of incidents. With the mandate extended to 18 January, high levels of associated incidents are likely to continue into 2022. Osprey endeavours to support the aviation industry by providing a broad range of detailed, reliable and consistent data. For free access to Osprey’s aviation security data, as well as COVID-19 and conflict zone intelligence, register for Osprey:Open here. 

 

About the author

Alexandra James Aviation Security Analyst

Alexandra (Ally) is an Aviation Security Analyst. She helps to ensure the editorial quality of the work produced by the team and contributes to its analytical output, with a focus on human trafficking, people smuggling and unruly passengers.

She joined from Green Light where she was the sub-editor and regular contributor of the trade journal, Aviation Security International. In addition to her editorial duties, she also participated in delivering training in topics such as unruly passenger management (de-escalation and restraint techniques) and advanced interview techniques.

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