Speed Reads

Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Flight attendants are flocking to self-defense classes as 2021 unruly passenger fines top $1 million

The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday that so far this year it has issued more than $1 million in fines for in-flight incidents and "received approximately 3,889 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, including about 2,867 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal face mask mandate." One unidentified passenger was fined $45,000 for "throwing objects" at fellow passengers on an Orlando-bound Jet Blue flight and "grabbing a flight attendant by the ankles and putting his head up her skirt."

Many flight attendants are responding by attending self-defense training taught by federal air marshals. The courses, started in 2004, were paused last year during the pandemic, but with air travel booming again and passengers misbehaving, "they're back up and running with four times the amount of classes and double the number of attendees as before," ABC News reports. On Thursday, NBC News took viewers inside one of those self-defense sessions in Chicago. 

"I think people are just kind of just at a tipping point with the pandemic," flight attendant Robin Gilinger told ABC News. "And when they're up in the air at 35,000 feet, there's no one to stop them. There's no police officer on the corner they can go to. It's just the flight attendants." United Airlines on Wednesday told its flight attendants not to use duct tape to restrain unruly passengers.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, argues that self-defense training should be mandatory, especially in this environment. "Flight attendants are saying they don't recognize this job," she told ABC News. "We have a lot of stories of kicking and punching and, my gosh, urinating and spitting and throwing trash at places and really disrespectful, awful name calling and threats." 

The four-hour sessions focus on de-escalation, not just defending against violent or unruly passengers. "We're not here to beat our passengers," Gilinger said. "We're here to stop the unrest that has precipitated through this pandemic."