“I am 40. My first flight was when I was 18 years old. Everyone was well-mannered, and an old lady sitting next to me gave me a piece of gum. Fast forward to my last flight in 2021. Trashy people dressed like slobs acting entitled, choosing to punch a flight attendant.”
Joe Munroe, a lanky, brown-haired man with bushy eyebrows and a receding chin, is talking about an altercation between a passenger on a Southwest flight from Sacramento to San Diego who got violent and knocked out two of the attendant’s front teeth. Read here.
“It’s a lot of people not really understanding that it is our job to remind them to put on their seat belts and not get up to use the restroom when we’re taxiing on the runway,” says Lori, a flight attendant for Delta Airlines who spoke on condition that only her first name be used so that she could speak candidly.
According to the FAA, the agency has received more than 3000 reports of unruly passengers since January 1. (To put that in context, the FAA received just 146 in 2019.)
My friend, Priya Sethi, who is a flight attendant with United Airlines, says, “I know that the vaccine is here and countries are opening up, but we are still in a pandemic, and there are still specific safety regulations that are in place. You may hate masks, but they’re still required on planes. I wear mine for twelve hours a day. It’s really painful to have people yelling at me,” she says.
Priya flies the direct route between San Francisco and New Delhi, India, and although she hasn’t faced bad behavior from aggressive passengers comparable to the above incident, she says the problem has become so severe that TSA is relaunching a self-defense training course for flight attendants and pilots to handle “potential physical altercations.”
Flight attendants say inconsiderate passengers are taking away the joy they get from the service element of their job. “I love connecting with my passengers, teasing them,” says Lori, as she wipes down the seats with sanitizing cloths. “But it is definitely a different ballgame right now. Some of the customers make it very hard to give that good customer service each and every time because they’re just acting out. They’re being very rude and nasty to the flight attendants.” She was a crew member of the Delta Air Flight where a violent passenger was subdued near the cockpit. After witnessing that altercation, Lori had to take two weeks off, to regroup and make sure she was in the right mental space to interact with passengers again.
So, why is this happening now? Air travel seems to have several elements that make it problematic for a society rapidly emerging from a pandemic. To begin with, most customers are crammed into tight spaces with complete strangers, where they have little control over what’s happening to them. Experts say this can lead to nervousness, negative feelings, and the kind of outbursts that are now the content of viral videos. Political polarisation and limited food and drink options seem to have heightened tensions too.
However, a well-known writer, Francine Prose, is suggesting that the prickly issue of the pandemic’s mental-health legacy is what is emerging in the (un) friendly skies. “Let’s be clear,” she says in an article (dated 6/22/21) in The Guardian, “something terrible and destabilizing happened to us . . . Hundreds of thousands of people died. Our Capitol was invaded. Our democracy remains at risk. For millions of Americans, there has been no recovery, and for them, the new normal is an ongoing state of panic. No matter what the charts show, people are still unemployed or fending off the creditors unleashed by the wreckage of their businesses.”
Ms. Prose suggests that for many Americans, the recovery is happening inside a pressure cooker. I agree. It may be Psychology 101, but until we address our societal nervous breakdown, deal with our mass amnesia, rather than partying like we’re rock stars, this prime summer travel season is going to see more of the new ‘Fight or Flight’ response.
Read more about why travel has become an emotional journey here.
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