While the job of a flight attendant is exciting, it can also be considerably challenging. The role requires a high level of responsibility and specialization to ensure safety in line with industry regulations. Not to mention offering a first-class customer service experience at 35,000 feet is no easy feat.
But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the aviation sector has been observing a growing number of disruptive passenger incidents on board flights. It is no secret that cabin crew members have been exposed to stress and other health problems related to the global health crisis. But the surge in unruly passenger incidents has also played a significant part when it comes to well-being issues faced by flight attendants.
So, just how is the rise in disruptive passenger behavior impacting cabin crew? What can be done to better support those affected by this issue? And most importantly, how can this spike in unruly passengers be tackled? AeroTime investigates.
How are unruly passengers affecting the mental health of flight attendants?
Cabin crew members have been exposed to various stresses, including fatigue, isolation, anxiety, sleep problems and depression, well before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, during the global health crisis the industry certainly saw these difficulties increase.
Cabin crew have been made redundant, encountered furloughs, non-existent flight hours, and experienced a loss of income. These issues have exacerbated stress and anxiety experienced by flight attendants, according to academic journal ‘Frontiers in Psychology’.
In addition to the worsening situation during the pandemic, cabin crew members have also been exposed to multiple challenges concerning unruly behavior on board flights. Verbal abuse, passengers shouting and swearing, and even physical abuse became increasingly common throughout 2021 and 2022.
As of May 24, 2022, the tally of reported inflight incidents for US carriers had risen to 1,419, according to data gathered by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA has initiated 470 investigations and 259 enforcement actions. In 2021 alone, reported incidents for US carriers rose to more than 5,000, according to the FAA.
US carriers reported an increase in disruptive passengers mostly related to procedural changes introduced during the global pandemic, particularly mask mandates on board aircraft.
An online survey by the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) revealed that 85% of flight attendants dealt with unruly passengers in the US during 2021, with almost one in five experiencing physical incidents.
According to the AFA-CWA, cabin crew members reported that they had faced extensive verbal abuse, with passengers yelling and swearing in response to masking requirements. Many of those who took part in the survey recounted aggressive incidents, including shoving, kicking seats, throwing trash at cabin crew, defiling the restroom in response to crew member instructions and following flight crew through the airport in an act of continued harassment.
Is there enough support for cabin crew?
The study also found that 71% of flight attendants who filed incident reports with their airline said they received no follow up action.
“This survey confirms what we all know, the vitriol, verbal and physical abuse from a small group of passengers is completely out of control and is putting other passengers and flight crew at risk,” said Sara Nelson, President of AFA-CWA.
Nas Lewis, a flight attendant who started a nonprofit called th|AIR|apy, a Facebook group where cabin crew can share experiences and get support from fellow flight attendants, told Yahoo Life in a November 2021 interview that she had seen a rise in depression and burnout mentioned by airline staff.
“So many flight attendants tell me, ‘Oh my gosh, I need a therapist’ or… ‘I’m really feeling suicidal,'” Lewis explained.
Lewis also said that people in charge have shown little consideration for pilots and flight attendants who “basically saved the industry” during the pandemic.
In an interview with New York Times Magazine Lewis said that she started a text service for flight attendants seeking support back in December 2021. The service is staffed by trained volunteers who are able to help deal with issues like depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. According to Lewis, there have been hundreds of messages about “experiences of despair, thoughts of quitting, aggressive incidents on the flights and feeling unsupported by airlines”.
While this issue is predominantly discussed in relation to the US, it is worth noting that Europe, Canada, and Australia have also faced challenges in the rise in disruptive passengers during the pandemic, according to media reports.
AeroTime has asked the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for a comment regarding the number of unruly passenger incidents during the pandemic, but the agency said that “EASA has only very limited data on this as unruly passenger incidents are only reported to us when there is a safety implication, which fortunately is mostly not the case.”
Former Wizz Air senior cabin crew member, and in-house AeroTime recruiter, Edvinas Mazintas, said that disruptive incidents have “definitely” increased due to mask mandates enforced during the pandemic.
“Many passengers did not want to wear masks after the COVID-19 pandemic started, and this led to many conflicts onboard,” said Mazintas. “However, most of [the incidents] were settled without the police intervention or use of physical force.”
Mazintas also acknowledged that there is an issue regarding the increase in unruly passenger incidents and that, for some cabin crew members, this can often lead to additional stress and anxiety.
However, Mazintas said that unruly passengers were not the main cause of anxiety and stress during the pandemic. “[The] unpredictable nature of [the] industry, loss of income, and non-existent flight hours due to reduced schedules caused more stress and anxiety than unruly passenger behavior during the pandemic,” Mazintas explained.
What can be done?
According to FAA statistics, the rate of unruly passenger incidents has dropped since the record-highs documented in early 2021. However, the is still much work to be done with regards to tackling this issue – and dealing with the stress it causes cabin crew.
Rick Breitenfeldt, a spokesperson for the FAA, told AeroTime that the aviation regulator saw a disturbing increase in incidents involving violent behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To tackle the issue, the “FAA initiated a Zero-Tolerance Policy against unruly passengers, launched an unruly passenger public awareness campaign featuring video PSAs, memes and signage that airports can display in public areas; and held stakeholder meetings in 2021 with airlines, airports, labor and law enforcement to address the issue from all angles of the system,” Breitenfeldt added.
Additionally, the FAA urged airports to work with concessionaires to avoid giving passengers to-go cups of alcohol before boarding a flight, as alcohol is a main factor in increasing in the risk of encountering disruptive behavior on board the aircraft
Breitenfeldt added that the FAA is also working closely with the FBI and TSA to ensure that unruly passengers face additional punishment when warranted.
Echoing the FAA, Mazintas said that passengers should be prohibited from drinking alcohol onboard the aircraft unless it is served by the carrier. This could reduce the risk of encountering disruptions and would also reduce the pressures faced by flight attendants.
Additionally, Mazintas suggested that in order to cope with mental health pressures there should be greater resources available for flight attendants. This should include somewhere they can seek advice and be offered a safe place to reach out when it is most needed, as it can often be challenging to ask for help.