Between the pandemic, the election, and nationwide protests, the past year has been contentious — and that’s been reflected during airplane rides, flight attendants say.
Some flight attendants who spoke with Insider said hostility from passengers and tensions on the plane have increased over the last year, and haven’t calmed down even as US COVID-19 infections slow.
Viral videos circulated all year depicting passengers getting thrown off flights for refusing to wear masks. Airlines have banned thousands of passengers for violating onboard mask policies. The Federal Aviation Administration recently fined a JetBlue passenger $32,750 for refusing to wear a mask on board, throwing bottles of alcohol, and hitting crew members.
“You have some people that think the mask is a complete farce and it’s ridiculous, and then you have some passengers that are terrified that they’re going to catch COVID on the airplane,” one San Francisco-based flight attendant who wished to remain anonymous told Insider.
“You’re trying to be as patient as possible and sympathize with both perspectives because as a flight attendant, you’re basically a mediator, that’s a huge part of our job.”
Insider spoke with seven flight attendants on how interactions with passengers changed during the pandemic. All flight attendants interviewed work for major US carriers, though they asked not to name their employers in order to speak openly. Insider confirmed the employment of all the flight attendants featured, including those who wished to stay anonymous so they could speak without fear of retaliation from airlines.
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The pandemic has changed the way flight attendants interact with passengers.
Soon after his inauguration, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring passengers wear masks on board planes — but flight attendants said the law didn’t deter passengers from rebelling.
Daz, who became a flight attendant during the pandemic, said he was surprised at how many people did not want to comply with the federal mask mandate. Though his favorite part of being a flight attendant is helping make passengers feel comfortable, Daz said it can be intimidating getting angry people who don’t want to wear a mask to comply to the rules. He added his captain will back him up in tense situations.
Similarly, flight attendant Jenn Ayala said one of her favorite parts of the job is greeting passengers and answering their questions, but she said she has dealt with some people angry about the mask mandate. Though she has not dealt with an altercation herself on board, she’s heard the horror stories of flight attendants dealing with rowdy passengers during the pandemic.
“There’s really not much you can do, you can’t force anyone to do anything, but if you want to fly, a mask over your nose isn’t going to hurt for too long,” Ayala said.
Some flight attendants worry tense relationships between passengers will persist after the pandemic.
Part of the reason for the aggression was due to an influx of new travelers taking advantage of cheap fares and a decline in business travelers, said one Los Angeles-based flight attendant who wished to remain anonymous.
Airlines have cut fares to lure travelers as the number of COVID-19 infections in the US declines. For instance, consumers recently jumped on $226 round-trip flights from Philadelphia to Tokyo, and Avelo, the new low-cost carrier offering $19 flights to some destinations, launched this spring.
The flight attendant said cheap flights are attracting first time flyers, and added she’s had issues with passengers unfamiliar with flight policies refusing to wear masks or listen to other rules. She said passengers in general were less likely to listen to crew members, and she has seen fights breaking out at airports and people being escorted off flights due during the pandemic.
“We never had to deal with any of that before,” the flight attendant said. “Before it was a rare day we threw someone off a flight, but now it’s a lot more common.”
Though one Chicago-based flight attendant said she’s experienced a rise in reports flight attendants need to fill out over passengers violating the mask policy, she is looking forward to travel coming back. She said she expects to continue to policy mask wearing onboard airplanes — where even fully vaccinated people must keep their masks on according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but sees it as an extention of her job to keep everyone safe on board.
“The thing is, our job has always been about safety,” the flight attendant said. “Our priority has always been safety, and masks are a part of safety, so I don’t feel like it’s outside the scope of my job.”
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