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Flight Attendants Back Bill to Create National List of Unruly Flyers

Madhu Unnikrishnan
April 8th, 2022 at 3:14 PM EDT

Sara Nelson Speaking

The federal mask mandate on flights may be ending soon, but that won’t eliminate the threat of unruly passengers disrupting flights, the head of the largest U.S. flight attendants union warns.

“I don’t view the two as related,” Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) President Sara Nelson said. “Clearly we have had conflicts on masks, but the issue of violence on board is a bigger issue: It’s about not wanting to follow the rules.”

Nelson and the AFA are putting their weight behind a new bill introduced by Representatives Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), and Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.) that would stiffen penalties for disruptive behavior onboard aircraft. “Unfortunately, too many of our pilots, flight attendants and crew members are dealing with unacceptable abuse from passengers — everything from kicking to spitting to biting,” Swalwell said in introducing the bill. “This behavior is not only inappropriate, but it also puts other crew and passengers at risk.”

The bill would create a national list of passengers who are barred from flying due to disruptive behavior. This would be separate from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) “no-fly” list of suspected terrorists or criminals. Instead, the list would be managed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and would allow redress for passengers who think they were included in error.

Currently, it is up to each airline to determine whether a passenger should be banned, with nothing preventing a passenger barred from one airline from buying a ticket on another.

Nelson called this provision important, but acknowledged that it could raise civil-liberty concerns, particularly in an industry already grappling with highly politicized reactions to mask mandates and other Covid-mitigation measures. “Individual airlines now can ban people, but there is no transparency, and information from one airline can’t be shared with other airlines,” she told Airline Weekly.

Flight crews reported almost 6,000 unruly-passenger incidents last year, more than the previous 30 years combined. Non-compliance with the federal mask mandate — a deeply polarizing mandate in the U.S. — resulted in several altercations, but it wasn’t the only factor. Alcohol is another, Nelson said.

Although rules limit the number of drinks an airport restaurant or bar can serve, the rules are not strictly enforced. Moreover, during the pandemic, airport concessions often encouraged to-go alcohol sales, despite rules prohibiting passengers from drinking alcohol they brought on board. “There needs to be better enforcement of rules around alcohol,” Nelson said. “There also needs to be a crackdown on concessionaires that are pushing alcohol to-go.”

But enforcement of the rules is a more intractable problem. Airports are typically policed by local law enforcement. The aircraft itself is the federal government’s jurisdiction. Nelson said there needs to be better coordination between law enforcement agencies to prevent excessive alcohol sales and to arrest disruptive passengers after landing.

The Swalwell-Reed bill addresses that by centralizing offenders in one list, Nelson said. “This sends a message that there are consequences for bad behavior,” she said. “Flying is a privilege, not a right.”

Labor’s Moment

Nelson noted that the labor movement now is enjoying a “moment,” with several high-profile and successful organizing efforts at Amazon warehouses and Starbucks stores. AFA is focused on seizing the moment to spread the gospel of unionization in all industries, but also at airlines that aren’t organized.

“There is incredible energy and momentum among Delta flight attendants,” Nelson said. “We are on track to file [for unionization] this year.”

Delta historically has fended off organizing drives. The workforce opted not to organize after Delta absorbed the unionized Northwest Airlines flight attendant workgroup in 2009. But AFA hopes to change that.

AFA has found a receptive audience among the more junior members of Delta’s 24,000 flight attendant workforce, Nelson said. “Younger workers are taking charge, and the more senior workers are excited by what they’re seeing.” ‘

In the larger economy, the path to unionization is steep. Despite recent successes, the numbers remain small. “People have won in the thousands, but there are tens of millions of workers in the country,” Nelson said. There is an awakening of solidarity and the power that generates, but we have a job to do to help the tens of millions of people who want to join unions.”

Madhu Unnikrishnan
April 8th, 2022 at 3:14 PM EDT

Photo credit: Sara Nelson Speaking Flickr/AFGE

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