In one case, a flight attendant said four passengers who would not keep their masks on harassed her over what they called “a simple mask issue.” The situation got so tense, the plane had to return to its gate. In another incident, a passenger who kept removing his mask rolled his eyes and told a flight attendant to shut up. Then, he yelled it: “SHUT UP!”
Other flight attendants have been met with passive aggressive displays of defiance. One flight attendant said a passenger refused to put his mask back on after the in-flight beverage service despite multiple warnings. Finally, he told the crew, “Well, if I hold my water bottle, I cannot wear my mask, right?” He then sipped water slowly for the rest of the flight, exploiting a policy that allows passengers to remove their masks while actively eating or drinking.
Flight attendants are put in a difficult spot
When airlines institute mandatory mask policies to keep their business operating, the task of enforcing them often falls to flight attendants. In the United States, where such a basic safety measure against Covid-19 is highly politicized, that task can be challenging. Sometimes, it’s downright dangerous.
“Enforcing mass compliance has been one of the most difficult parts of our job,” says Allie Malis, a flight attendant for American Airlines and a government affairs representative for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. “We’re considered essential workers, but there’s no hazard pay or anything like that.”
While airlines and crew members note that a vast majority of passengers do abide by mask policies, flight attendant unions say their members regularly encounter travelers who respond with belligerence, verbal threats and even physical assault.
In the absence of federal mask regulations, many flight attendants felt there was little they could do to ensure compliance — or protect themselves against backlash and aggression.
But with President Joe Biden planning to issue an executive order Thursday requiring masks in airports and on planes, that could be about to change.
The FAA is adopting a stricter approach
Through March 30, 2021, passengers who assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with airline crew members can face fines of as much as $35,000 and even imprisonment, according to the FAA. The agency had previously addressed such instances with warnings and civil penalties, among other methods.
Passengers wear protective masks on an American Airlines flight departing Los Angeles International Airport on June 13, 2020.
Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images
In a January 13 news release, the FAA said that it had seen a “disturbing increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior,” citing both refusals from passengers to wear masks and recent violence at the US Capitol.
In one of the cases, the agency alleged that a passenger on an Allegiant Air flight last August hit a flight attendant, screamed profanities and grabbed a phone from them as they as were talking to the captain about the passenger’s refusal to wear a mask. The agency proposed a $15,000 fine.
In a separate case that same month, a passenger on a SkyWest Airlines flight from Atlanta to Chicago took off their mask, pestered other passengers and sexually harassed a flight attendant, the FAA alleged. The agency proposed a $7,500 fine.
A federal mask mandate would provide backup, unions say
Still, a federal requirement to wear masks on planes would provide critical backup for flight attendants who regularly deal with unruly passengers, flight attendant unions say.
“The lack of federal guidelines or mandates has made (flight attendants’) jobs harder, and it has been made harder by inconsistent mask mandates across the United States,” Taylor Garland, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told CNN.
Garland added that a common retort that flight attendants would hear from passengers unwilling to wear masks is that, “It’s not the law.” A federal requirement, she said, would “eliminate that talking point for them.”
Advocates say it would also make things more fair
A federal mask mandate would also address what passengers’ rights groups see as a problem of uneven enforcement that has resulted from airlines being left to institute and enforce Covid-19 safety measures on their own.
“It’s very questionable what authority airlines have in the public accommodation to tell people that they have to wear a mask and if they don’t, what the penalties could be,” Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, told CNN.
Passengers check bags for a Delta flight at Los Angeles International Airport on November 18, 2020.
Patrick Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
“Let’s suppose we left it up to the airlines to decide whether you could smoke on an airplane. That was the case for a long time, and every airline had its own policy. That didn’t work out so well,” he says. “Uniform rules and laws are the best way and often the only way you can have fairness, safety and health security in this case.”
Then-Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s general counsel wrote in a letter that such regulations were not needed, citing protocols issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and mask policies already in place by airlines and other transportation systems. The department also added “there should be no more regulations than necessary.”
There are still questions
Questions remain about when exactly Biden’s executive order requiring masks on interstate travel will take effect and how it will be enforced.
Advocates such as Hudson worried it wouldn’t be enforceable without formal approval from the Department of Transportation.
Still, airlines and flight attendants are optimistic.
“Joe Biden has made very clear that he intends to institute a national mandate across the board, but also specifically for transportation, including planes,” Garland said. “That will go a long way to backing up flight attendants and making it very clear that you must come to the plane with a mask on and keep it on at all times.”