Crazy reports of disruptive airline passenger behavior — which has been on a steady post-pandemic rise— have been piling up: On Saturday, Southwest ejected a passenger after she physically assaulted a flight attendant, ultimately sending the employee to the hospital. Earlier this month, a 20-year-old man was charged for striking a crew member aboard American Airlines. And in July, a video of a passenger went viral after he was duct-taped to his seat by airline staff after assaulting multiple attendants on a flight from Philadelphia to Miami.
Since January, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates all aspects of civil aviation in the U.S., has logged over 5,000 reports of unruly passengers — with over 70 percent of these incidents about masks — and has fined at least 10 passengers, with almost a quarter-million dollars of that for verbal and/or physical abuse. Also so far this year, the FAA has initiated 973 investigations into bad behavior, compared to 183 in 2020 and 146 in 2019.
The rise of such events — on top of what some flight attendants view as a lack of accountability from top brass, as well as feeling they have nowhere to turn when it comes to dealing with the stress of the job — have many wondering if they should leave the industry altogether, especially as travel ramps up for the holidays.
Nas Lewis, a flight attendant for a major airline (who requested the name be withheld to avoid repercussions), tells Yahoo Life that folks in charge have shown little regard for pilots and flight attendants who "basically saved the industry" last year.
Luckily, she had already formed th|AIR|apy, a private Facebook group and nonprofit, a few years ago; now nearly 4,000 flight attendants share information about mental health and offer support for those who feel like they aren’t getting it elsewhere.
"So many flight attendants [tell] me, 'Oh my gosh, I need a therapist' or... 'I'm really feeling suicidal,'" Lewis says. "Just last week, a foreign student came on [the group] and she was like, 'I need help. I'm broke. I really don't feel like I'm going to live anymore.’ She called the company she worked for and the representatives told her that she 'was not suicidal enough' for XYZ. A flight attendant later saw her post and took her to the ER. She ended up in an outpatient [facility] after that."
“Talking about mental health in my profession is a big conflict of interest," she adds. "I'm telling the truth. They don't want the liability of [passengers knowing] that your flight attendants are suffering, and they're committing suicide: ‘We don't want to know about it, because they're happy, and they're fine.’ They don't want us to say those things. But I've been saying it."
"It's been really hard," Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, representing over 100,000 flight attendants, tells Yahoo Life. "There was a lot of stress to the whole [COVID] crisis, just like everyone else felt, but we are in the business of bringing people together, not tearing them apart. What's been happening on the plane is just completely at odds with what we know and feel about our jobs. It's confusing, it's frustrating, it's sometimes terrifying — but also not something we can accept as a new normal."
An Association of Flight Attendants survey from this summer polled 5,000 flight attendants and found that 85 percent have dealt with disruptive passengers this year, with nearly 20 percent saying it escalated to a physical altercation.
Still, the spike in violence hasn't stopped passengers from booking their holiday travel. Booking sites like Skyscanner and Expedia have seen a significant increase in searches for U.S. hotels from overseas, as noted by The New York Times. Similar increases have been reported domestically as well. According to the Adobe Digital Economy Index, which tracks the latest data on U.S. domestic flight bookings online, Thanksgiving travel bookings (between Nov. 20 and Nov. 25) are 78 percent higher than last year and 3.2 percent higher than 2019.
Airlines have already had trouble meeting the higher demand, forcing them to either delay or cancel thousands of flights — several of which were prompted by staffing shortages.
And through all of it, flight attendants have felt the brunt more than most, says Lewis.
Even more concerning is that sometimes exhaustion can turn into a safety issue, given that flight attendants are trained to be first responders in emergency situations. "We're not waiters," she explains. "Service is five percent of my training and the other 95 percent of it is safety."
This summer’s AFA survey found that 71 percent of flight attendants who filed incident reports with management received "no follow-up," and a majority saw no efforts to address the rise in passenger aggression.
What the airlines say
Yahoo Life reached out to several major airlines to share any actions they've taken to support the mental health of their employees following the rising reports of violence.
A representative from Southwest Airlines tells Yahoo Life, "Employees are offered a variety of services and resources designed to support mental health and wellbeing as part of the airline’s employee assistance program — including free access to mental health clinicians 24 hours per day via phone. Additionally, throughout the pandemic, Southwest Airlines has focused on supporting the mental health of employees by offering webinars and resources with suggestions for managing stress, maintaining wellness, and navigating challenging times."
American Airlines shared the following statement: "We offer all American Airlines team members and their families access to mental health support through our Employee Assistance Program. This includes opportunities for virtual, phone and in-person support through on-site counselors at several of our locations.”
At Delta, a spokesperson says, "Behind every safety-focused, professional Delta Flight Attendant is a team of supportive leaders and colleagues that have their back. Additionally, Delta in recent years has invested in expanded access to and coverage of mental health resources for all of our people. We have long held that civility in our airports and on our flights is a hallmark of our values-led culture and we thank our Flight Attendants for the safety-professional role they play to ensure an enjoyable, reliable and comfortable experience for our customers on every Delta flight."
JetBlue and United Airlines have yet to respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment.
'We love our jobs'
While a number of flight attendants have spoken out in recent months about their experiences, Lewis is quick to note that the goal has always been to work with companies, not against them. "We love our jobs. All we want to do is actually be transparent about what's going on," she explains.
Flight attendants like Breaunna Ross say being a flight attendant is one of the most rewarding things she's experienced in her life. But the emotional turmoil of the last year has taken a toll.
"I will never forget the first time I saw the Eiffel Tower, I was just, like, in awe," Ross, who works for a major airline, tells Yahoo Life. "I'm from a very, very small town in Louisiana. So like, I never thought I would get to go to the places that I've gotten to go to and experience all these different cultures that I've gotten to experience. And honestly, that's what keeps me going."
Though she's flying less to "keep myself safe," Ross says her team has developed self-preservation tricks such as "buddy-bidding," where you bid for your schedule with another flight attendant so you can at least have someone on board that you know.
"Getting to fly with someone that will have your back in certain situations, even someone that is possibly a friend of yours, helps a lot in dealing," she explains. "I've said this so many times, but I just want people to be nicer. It's truly insane how people act now."
She adds, "We had a flight attendant who recently got punched in her nose … And then we're short-staffed. Things are canceling and things are delayed. We're trying to get you where you need to be, of course, but if we don't have the people, we don't have the people. And I feel like that always falls back on flight attendants."
Morgan Alexandria, a Nashville-based flight attendant, feels "lucky" to not have personally experienced violence in the skies, but admits she's not treated the same as before.
"It's been rough coming back after the pandemic because people aren't as nice as they were," she explains. Still, her love of flying is evident on TikTok, where she posts her day-to-day celebrations as a young flight attendant (see a post above). "I love to travel the world. Flying gives me the opportunity to do that," she says. "It gives me an opportunity to go and see friends and see places that I never thought I would be able to see. I love people in general. And I love all cultures."
The tight-knit flight attendant community, she adds, is another perk. "It’s good to have friends in this industry because normal people just will not understand," she explains. "They understand to an extent, but when you have friends that are in this industry, it just makes it 10 times better."
Being able to have a "thick skin," Ross says, has kept her afloat. "Anytime someone gets upset, I try not to wear my feelings on my sleeve," she explains. "I know a lot of flight attendants aren't capable of doing that."
How can flyers help?
For many, the stress of traveling can bring about out-of-character rage. But according to flight attendants, there are some simple steps everyone can take to make the experience better for everyone.
It starts with "simply smiling and saying thank you," Ross says. Also, "have patience and make sure you're prepared." And get your favorite snacks and drinks before boarding to make sure you have what you need, she adds. "We do have full planes now and there are still catering issues. We may not always have your Sprite that you want. That's something people get upset about."
Another good idea that used to go without saying: Get to the airport early in case there's a long line at security, so you aren't late for boarding. "People will be like, 'Can you hold our flight? Can you do this or that?' There's only so much we can do," Alexandria says.
Also, if you get cold easily, know that shorter flights do not offer blankets, she adds, so bring a warm layer.
Preparation extends beyond just tiny comforts, adds Lewis. "If you look at your ticket and see that your family is not sitting together, take care of it before you come on board," she explains. Otherwise, "we're going to be late, because you didn't prepare yourself. It sounds really mean, but that is just how this industry works." She stresses, "I don't know anything about seat arrangements. I don't even know how to book a seat … Our jurisdiction ends at the boarding door."
Finally, everyone pleads: Follow instructions, which is "the best thing you can do for us as crew," Lewis says. "Put your mask on. Put your seatbelt on."
Adds Nelson, "Look out for your own well-being. Make sure you know what you're going to need for this trip. And that can include both what you need at the airport and what you need at your destinations: IDs, boarding passes, your proof of COVID vaccination. In some cases, you might need a COVID-negative test." Also, be mindful of the TSA prohibited items list.
"Be patient with other passengers and airline workers and think about yourself as a helper," Nelson suggests. "If you see something, say something. Get the attention of flight attendants. The sooner we can get to an issue, the more likely it is that we can de-escalate it and your flight doesn't end up on the evening news … We encourage passengers to sit back, wear a mask, relax and bring kindness to the airport."
Or tokens of appreciation, which can go a long way, says Nelson, noting, "Flight attendants love chocolate."