Disputes over masks are 75% of FAA’s unruly-passenger complaints on planes

A traveler wearing a face mask is seen at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia on February 2, 2021.

Ting Shen | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Much of the Federal Aviation Administration’s recalcitrant passenger reports on aircraft come from passengers who refuse to comply with mask requirements to protect against the spread of Covid-19.

About 75% of reports of recalcitrant passengers since Jan. 1 began with people refusing to wear their masks and escalated from there into profanity, screaming matches and even physical violence, the agency said on Tuesday.

The FAA introduced a “zero tolerance” policy with heavy fines earlier this year aimed at curbing unruly passengers after an increase in incidents, but that hasn’t stopped travelers from berating airlines, disrupting flights, and even two to knock teeth out of the mouth of a flight attendant.

“It’s gotten out of hand,” said Paul Hartshorn, spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American Airlines’ more than 20,000 flight attendants. “It really gets to the point where we have to defend ourselves.”

The current federal mask requirements require travelers on trains, buses, commercial flights and at airports to wear face masks. The mandate, which was extended in the spring, currently expires on September 13th.

So far this year, the FAA has fined untrue travelers $ 682,000, identifying potential violations in 540 cases and taking enforcement actions in 83 cases.

The agency on Tuesday released the details of eight cases of recalcitrant travelers fined between $ 7,500 and $ 21,500 for disputes stemming from their refusal to wear masks, including two cases where passengers were other passengers hit.

Flights have been delayed and even diverted due to unruly passengers, many of whom refuse to wear face masks properly or at all. The agency does not disclose the identity of the fined passengers, but does say that passengers have 30 days to appeal the fines.

Health officials generally consider airplane travel safe with regards to Covid, but they have said it depends on passengers’ compliance with mask requirements and other guidelines.

“Although we have seen overall cases of transmissions on airplanes, this is a safe form of travel even from a Covid perspective,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization’s Emergency Health Program, at a briefing on Monday. “The problem is what happens when you get to your destination, what you’re exposed to, and what you take home.”

Health officials are also warning of unnecessary travel, especially with the advent of the highly contagious Delta variant as many people vacation abroad to make up for more than a year of pandemic lockdown at home.

“Nobody says it is not safe to take a vacation, but we try to say that it is not time to open up to it completely,” said Ryan.

– CNBC’s Leslie Josephs contributed to this report.

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