Flight attendants fear for safety amid spike in unruly fliers

FILE – In this Dec. 2, 2020, file photo, an American Airlines flight attendant hands out snack bags aboard a Boeing 737 Max jet before taking off from Dallas Fort Worth airport in Grapevine, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

(NewsNation) — Being a flight attendant can be a dangerous and scary job. From severe turbulence to unruly passengers, some flight attendants are now worried for their safety

Just this week, a disorderly passenger was arrested after he allegedly tried to stab a flight attendant in the neck with a broken metal spoon and open an emergency door on a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Boston.

A Spirit Airlines flight from Dallas to Orlando had to make an emergency landing in Jacksonville, Florida, after the cabin filled with smoke due to a lithium battery that caught on fire in an overhead bin.

Sara Nelson, president of the flight attendants union the Association of Flight Attendants, said when distractions are created in the cabin, it takes away from flight attendants’ abilities to monitor the cabin for actual emergencies, such as a medical emergency.

“Our job is extremely complicated, and we are aviation’s first responders,” Nelson said. “We respond to emergencies onboard. … But since 9/11, we’re also aviation’s last line of defense and aviation security. All of these threats have really threatened the ability for us to do our jobs to keep everyone safe.”

The most recent data from the Federal Aviation Administration shows it investigated 823 reports of unruly passengers in 2022. That’s down from the year before, but a more than 450% increase from 2019.

“We’ve got packed planes, thousands of flights every single day, and most of them take off and land without incident, and that’s due to the good work of the flight attendants. But when there’s fewer of us to get to the problem, that means that these little problems can become very big,” Nelson explained.

Nelson said distractions in the cabin are incredibly dangerous for everyone onboard and are distractions from the safety work that flight attendants and pilots need to focus on in order to safely fly and land the plane.

The Association of Flight Attendants said this week there’s an “urgent need for a national banned disruptive passenger list.”

Right now, individual airlines can ban a passenger flying with them, but there’s nothing stopping that passenger from going to another airline, getting on another plane, and potentially acting the same way.

At one point, some airlines even banned liquor sales on planes in the hope that it would help evade unruly passenger incidents.

Nelson said that alcohol can be a huge contributor that fuels these incidents. However, she said the biggest problem is that staffing levels are at the lowest they have ever been, while planes are fuller than ever.

“When there’s fewer of us to get to the problem and address that, that means that these little problems that start out as little problems can become very big. And in several cases, it’s the flight attendants who are targeted for these violent attacks,” Nelson said.

Pilots and flight attendants have been sounding the alarm for a while now, saying they are understaffed and overworked.

In Washington on Thursday, airport workers called on lawmakers to pass a reintroduced bill that would establish a minimum wage for workers at airports across the country.

“At 30,000d feet, there’s not a lot that a flight attendant can do,” said travel industry expert Sandra McLemore. “They can’t call 911, they can’t call in extra support. They are reliant on the training they were given to de-escalate arguments.”

“Flight attendants are scared,” McLemore added. “They’re going out, they’re learning martial arts, they’re learning how to defend themselves. And it’s incumbent on other passengers now to start helping.”


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