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As COVID-19 Restrictions Ease, Airline Employees Are Seeing Trouble On Flights

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As more Americans come out of their homes and travel, are we fighting more with each other? Some anecdotal evidence would suggest so - fans throwing bottles at NBA stars, fights in restaurants. Even on planes, unruly passengers are causing trouble and getting new attention. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Near the back of the plane on a recent Southwest Airlines flight that had just landed in San Diego, a confrontation between a passenger and a flight attendant turned violent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED REORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Crosstalk).

SCHAPER: This video of the incident that went viral shows a female passenger punching a flight attendant in the face, knocking out two of her teeth and bloodying her cheek. Local police arrested the 28-year-old passenger, charging her with felony battery. What's remarkable about this video isn't how unusual it is, but how increasingly common incidents like this are becoming.

SARA NELSON: Flight attendants are out on the front lines right now, and some are actually punching bags for the public.

SCHAPER: Sara Nelson heads the Association of Flight Attendants, the nation's largest flight attendants' union.

NELSON: And it is unacceptable. We have flight attendants who are quitting because of it. We have flight attendants who have been seriously injured.

SCHAPER: Nelson says the vast majority of incidents involve passengers refusing to wear face masks. Even though the CDC says those vaccinated no longer need masks in most situations, the federal mask mandate on public transportation remains in place. So masks are still required on planes and in airports as well as on trains, buses and in stations because there is no reliable way to verify passengers are really vaccinated. Sara Nelson says that often puts flight attendants in the unenviable position of enforcing a federal regulation that some passengers reject.

NELSON: People have been led to believe that taking safety precautions is a political decision rather than a public health necessity.

STEVE DICKSON: I've been appalled at the unruly and dangerous behavior that we've seen in recent months on commercial aircraft.

SCHAPER: That's FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, who says about 2,800 incidents involving unruly passengers on commercial airline flights have already been reported this year, a sharp jump over past years when far more people were flying. And he says almost 80% of those incidents involve passengers refusing to wear masks. Dickson warns that those violating the mandate and causing disruptions could face hefty fines and even jail time.

DICKSON: And I've got to tell you in no uncertain terms, if you break these rules, put others at risk and impact their travel plans, we'll prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.

SCHAPER: The FAA has already announced civil penalties against dozens of passengers, including one totaling nearly $30,000 for hitting a Delta flight attendant. Southwest and American Airlines announced they will not serve alcohol onboard flights in hopes that might quell unruly behavior. But will it?

MATTHEW KLINT: We're in for a rough summer.

SCHAPER: Matthew Klint lives the Live and Let Fly air travel blog and expects we'll see more incidents on planes as more people return to air travel and planes become even more jam packed, especially since many are leisure travelers who just don't fly that often.

KLINT: When they're subject to this experience, the masks, limited to no service onboard, new deplaning procedures, new restrictions - right? - it creates, at times, an environment of hostility that plays out in this bad behavior onboard.

SCHAPER: He and others are hoping cooler heads can prevail until fall, when enough people may become vaccinated that the mask mandate on planes might be dropped.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "STARRY SKIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.