Video shows a violent physical altercation during a Delta flight 1:29
Assaults on crew members.
Last year was the worst on record for unruly behavior by airline passengers in the United States, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
As of December 31, the FAA had recorded an impressive 5,981 reports of unruly passengers.
Of these, 4,290, almost 72%, were incidents related to the use of masks.
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This Thursday marks a year since the FAA announced a "zero tolerance" policy for unruly passenger behavior, which skips warnings or advice and goes straight to penalties, which can include heavy fines and jail time. .
The policy, prompted by mask-related incidents and violence at the US Capitol, was originally set to expire at the end of March 2021. It has been extended at least until the federal mask mandate is lifted. .
The rate of incidents with unruly passengers is down about 50% from record highs in early 2021, the FAA notes on the page where it tracks incidents, "but more work remains to be done."
Much more work, according to flight attendant and union leader Sara Nelson.
Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, is painfully aware of what airline crew members continue to face.
In addition to the "extremely violent" and more "outrageous and egregious" cases that have made headlines during the pandemic, there has been a steady stream of assaults.
"We also have a lot of incidents that are happening more regularly that are violent, maybe not directly towards someone, but in actions and words: punching on seat backs, spitting, throwing litter at people, yelling obscenities, using slurs. racist, gendered and homophobic," Nelson told CNN Travel.
"Today, when flight attendants put on their uniform, they don't know if it's going to be a sign of leadership and authority for cabin security or a target for violent attack," he said.
A huge spike in serious incidents
Prior to 2021, the FAA did not track the number of unruly passenger incidents because the number was fairly constant.
But a sharp uptick in unruly passenger behavior in late 2020 prompted the agency to start tracking reports in 2021.
However, the FAA has recorded the number of unruly passenger incidents that reached the level of being investigated since 1995.
From 1995 to 2020, an average of 182 investigations were initiated per year.
In 2021, the FAA initiated 1,081 investigations, an increase of 494% over the historical average of investigations.
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One piece of good news from last year is the roughly 50% drop in the incident rate since early 2021, when the FAA launched its zero-tolerance campaign amid a record number of incidents.
"Our work is having an impact and the trend is in the right direction. But we need the progress to continue," FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a news release noting a 50% decline in September.
But the figure at the time was more than double what it was at the end of 2020, according to the statement.
"This remains a serious security threat, and one incident is too many," Dickson said.
Passengers board a United Airlines plane during a flight in July 2021
Credit: Gado/Getty Images
Consequences for unruly passengers
As of November 4, the FAA had referred 37 of the 227 cases in which it had initiated liability actions to the FBI for criminal review.
(The FAA has no authority to prosecute criminal cases.)
It's part of the Justice Department's growing focus on unruly passenger behavior.
The FAA told CNN that more cases are being referred to the FBI on a regular basis.
The airline industry group Airlines for America, which has been working with the government to address unruly passenger incidents, said in a statement that it continues to "advocate for greater and faster prosecution by the Department of Justice for criminal cases of violence or assault against passengers or crew".
At least one passenger involved in a 2021 incident was charged with assault and crew interference.
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Nelson said that, over time, seeing convictions and jail time for some passengers "will serve as the most effective deterrent to these incidents on planes."
He would also like to see a centralized list of offenders that could be used by all airlines to deny flights.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in late October that a federal no-fly list for violent passengers "should be on the table."
(The current federal no-fly list is used to prevent terrorism.)
"It is completely unacceptable to mistreat, abuse or even disrespect flight personnel," Buttigieg told CNN's Dana Bash.
Some of the most immediate consequences for passengers in 2021 came in the form of heavy fines.
The FAA can propose fines of up to $37,000 per violation against unruly passengers.
The FAA took action in 350 cases in 2021.
The agency said it has not accounted for the full amount of 2021 fines against unruly passengers, but the figure had passed $1 million by August.
Several of the incidents that resulted in fines in 2021 were alcohol-related.
Unruly passengers could also lose their TSA PreCheck status, a possible consequence for misbehavior announced in December.
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As of Tuesday, 76 incidents of unruly passengers had been reported since the beginning of this year, with an investigation and enforcement of measures.
Nelson stresses that "the vast majority of people who get on planes simply want to have a safe and uneventful flight, and that remains true."
Work with agencies, airports, airlines and law enforcement has "put the stepping stones" to tackle the problem, he said.
So far, the most notable change Nelson has seen since January 2021 is widespread awareness, with the kindness and appreciation of some passengers being additional welcome results.
"We know that people understand that this is happening, and that makes a big difference," Nelson said.
"We just have to figure it out now."
-- Pete Muntean and Gregory Wallace contributed reporting.
-- Pete Muntean and Gregory Wallace contributed reporting.