Southwest Airlines flies from Sacramento to San Diego 90 times a week. The one-hour and twenty-minute trip is usually a placid affair; turbulent California weather provides an occasional unpleasant exception.
Flight 700 on Sunday May 23 of this year was unexpectedly whipsawed by forces much stronger than rough air.
While on board, a Southwest flight attendant was severely assaulted by a passenger. The attendant lost two teeth in the altercation and had to be treated at a San Diego hospital. The unruly passenger was charged with felony battery: she cooled her heels in jail for two hours before being released on $35,000 bail.
Apparently, according to witnesses, the attendant was pummeled because she had to repeatedly ask the passenger to comply with routine safety measures, such as keeping her seat belt buckled.
In response to the attack, Lyn Montgomery, President of TWU Local 556, which represents flight attendants at the airline, wrote a stern letter to the Chairman and CEO of Southwest, Gary Kelly. Complaining about the frequency of hostile encounters, she said, “This unprecedented number of incidents has reached an intolerable level, with passenger non-compliance events also becoming more aggressive in nature.”
Air rage is defined as uncontrolled anger expressed in quarrelsome or violent behavior while on a commercial airline. A disruptive passenger is one who fails to respect the rules of conduct or the instructions of the crew, thus disturbing the order required for safe transport.
Montgomery’s assessment about the increasing numbers of these episodes is right on the money. From January until mid-June of 2021, the FAA received an astounding 3,100 reports of unruly behavior — this is considerably higher than the 142 reports of similar conduct averaged on an annual basis over the last decade.
Aviation psychologist Robert Bor explained to Time that airplanes are not well suited for commodious interaction. “The aircraft cabin is an unusual environment,” he said. “The altitude, the low pressure, the noise — all of those things can lead to hostile behavior.”
Still, there is little doubt the Wu Han virus has had a robust impact on the escalating barbarity.
Of the 3,100 incidents, 2,350 are related to passengers refusing to follow the federal mask mandate — which, by the way, has been extended for air travel until at least September 15.
“Newly locked up people are now free and asserting themselves, creating a sort of battleground for infection control wisdom,” Bor emphasized. “Most people are pretty neutral about whether they have a Coke or Pepsi, but they will have strong feelings when it comes to issues of health, human rights…it makes people behave in a slightly more militant way.”
The FAA has responded to the crisis by imposing stringent consequences: the days of issuing warnings has been replaced by a “zero tolerance” policy.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson has been no-nonsense about the burgeoning growth of onboard conflicts. He has alerted his safety inspectors and attorneys to take immediate and forceful action against offenders. There have been more than $563,800 in fines issued in the last seven months and criminal charges have been filed in some cases.
Dickson has consistently maintained that flying is the safest way to travel; FAA leadership is committed to keeping it that way.
Air rage is only one barometer of societal frustration with pandemic restrictions. Significant numbers of Americans appear to be seething and it’s showing up in other national indicators.
Road rage resulting in injuries or death has doubled this year. Law enforcement officers have observed a marked increase in unrestrained speeding, tailgating, abrupt lane changes in close proximity to other vehicles, and highly confrontational driving techniques.
Similarly, accounts of domestic violence are up over 8 percent in the United States, 20% worldwide.
Relief is not in immediate sight, especially with the emergence of the delta and lambda variants on the COVID-19 front.
Psychologist and medical school professor David Rosmarin, Ph.D., recently analyzed our current circumstances in an interview with The Harvard Gazette. “People are definitely exhibiting more anger,” he stated. “People are on edge and one of the ways that they express that is through anger, which is obviously not healthy…I think anger toward the virus is because we are really afraid of it…all human beings need to have connection with others, but we go into anger or attack as a way of defending ourselves. When we are aggressive, we don’t have to show vulnerability to other people.”
Accepting that vulnerability and recognizing our inter-relatedness is the healthiest way to deal with the pandemic. “We are uncertain about the future and that’s okay,” Rosmarin noted. “We don’t have to have all the knowledge or strength…what we really need is not to be strong, but to be close and connected to the people around us.”
Sound advice. But, is anyone listening in these extremely challenging times?