NOTE: This article is not pro-mask, anti-mask, pro-vax, anti-vax, deadly virus, or non-deadly virus, ad nauseum. If you read that into my words then you put them there, not me.
According to a recent report from Reuters, U.S. flight disturbances have jumped by 500% and 85 TSA officers have been assaulted.
“U.S. federal agencies are dealing with a rising number of unruly airline passengers on increasingly crowded airplanes, including thousands who have refused to wear masks. The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday that since Jan. 1 it has received 3,509 unruly passenger reports, including 2,605 refusing to wear a mask. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told a U.S. House panel Tuesday that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic there have been over 85 physical assaults on TSA officers. The TSA says inflight disturbances have risen from 2 incidents per 1 million screened in 2019 to 12 per 1 million in 2021. The rising numbers of incidents come as U.S. air travel has hit a post-February 2020 high as more Americans get vaccinated.”
The FAA also recently issued a $10,500 fine against an unruly passenger who was repeatedly non-compliant with the FAA mask policy. And there are other fines being considered for events with other passengers.
As someone who never stopped flying on airlines, except for the early part of 2020, I have been able to observe the change as it unfolded. Although none of my flights were overseas they have crisscrossed the U.S. on most carriers, in big jets and regionals. My travels have carried me through small, medium, and mega terminals with quick turns and long layovers. In all these instances I enjoy watching human behavior to pass the time, and of course, much of it is just good situational awareness. As a result of this, I have some theories as to why all this air rage is happening.
Firstly, people are forced to be in masks longer during air travel than anywhere else in their day-to-day lives, and this includes even back when things were really strict at the beginning of the outbreak. Yes, there are some jobs where people are remaining masked during their shift, but they have breaks and I guarantee they are stepping out back from time to time and catching a breath.
On a typical flight, I show up at the airport at 0700 and mask up as I enter the terminal and it doesn’t come off for 10-12 hours, except for a quick bite or coffee. And during this whole time, you are constantly being reminded not to remove it under penalty of law and being banned from flying in the future. There are warnings when you buy your tickets, signs when you enter the terminal, warnings when you check-in, warnings on the PA system, warnings in the gate area, and multiple warnings on the flight. The truth be told, nobody likes being nagged and this is nagging on a colossal scale. It sets people on edge from the very start.
Another factor is the conflicting message. Social distance will save you. Social distance. Social distance. SOCIAL DISTANCE! The stores and jetbridges even have little circles just in case you are too stupid to know how much six feet is. They even tell you to maintain social distance when boarding, and yet the cattle herd mentality kicks in when they do the preboarding announcement and people start clustering together at the door. This annoys and angers those who try to keep social distance. They also get particularly annoyed by those who don’t wear their mask correctly, off their nose, or hanging off one ear.
Again, let me stress, this article is not pro or anti-anything. It’s just an observation of human behavior and a discussion on why we are having an increase in air rage incidents. And I believe they will continue to climb as air travel increases.
So now we have been nagging about masks and social distancing and what do we do? We cram folks into airplanes and make them sit 1.5 feet away from six other people, 3 feet away from eight people, and within social distance, you have about fourteen people. For people who really believe that social distancing helps this is incredibly stressful and for those who don’t it’s an obvious double-standard. Combine the two groups and it means that all your passengers are on edge.
Now let’s look at the gate personnel. They are dealing with angry and frustrated passengers even more so now than pre-pandemic. And they do it their whole shift. They have “antis” who are complaining about the airline policy about masks, even though it’s the government that they should be complaining to. They have the maskers complaining about those not wearing the mask properly. They have a whole herd of angry people and as soon as they board that group they go to another gate and do it all over again, all day long. And most people forget that that airline personnel also run the gamut of pro and anti regarding the policies. But if they want to keep their jobs they have to comply. I’ve noticed that even gate personnel are less courteous and more stressed than pre-Covid.
Flight attendants are really in the same boat as the gate folks but in some ways, it’s worse just due to physical proximity. They are burdened with much more in the way of enforcement. Right before takeoff, they announce that they are coming through the cabin for a final mask check. Couple that with angry passengers, some of which have been drinking alcohol in the airport bar, and you have a recipe for a fight. Americans don’t like being told what they can and can’t do, especially when they are already on edge.
Also, there have been physical attacks on flight attendants, so they are in many ways worse off than the gate people. They have started adding snacks and drinks back but in its own right that’s just another double standard, especially since it never went away in First/Business Class. But being in the mask during snack service is stressful as well. You can’t always understand the FA and they can’t always understand what you want. It just piles more wood on the fire. Also, keep in mind that some of the FA’s are anti-maskers themselves and so they aren’t happy either.
Now we toss in the loss of body language cues. What do I mean by that? Well, most everyone knows that body language conveys quite a bit of the meaning of what we are trying to communicate. How many times have you had an e-mail, social media post, or text be misunderstood and taken totally opposite of what you meant? That’s because the reader can’t hear your tone of voice or see your face. As human beings, we need to see facial cues, especially the mouth. A smile can defuse an initial flare of anger, or even prevent it from happening, but a mask covers that up. People are surrounded by masks from start to finish and have completely lost access to an important human cue. And of course, very few people are smiling anyway because everyone, and I mean everyone is stressed. In one way or another, they are stressed.
Another log on the bonfire is that the airlines parked so many aircraft and furloughed so many aircrews. Regardless of their reasoning, it’s what they did and now it’s not a simple matter of calling everyone back. They need recurrency training and that’s done in simulators that have limited flowthrough. Now the crux of the issue is that air travel rebounded faster than what most of the experts predicted and now there aren’t enough crews for the demand and flights are being canceled or delayed.
Passengers don’t like cancelations and delays during normal times but when they are already stressed from pandemic issues it’s exacerbated. And if you think about it, people have been cooped up and stressed from the virus and all they want is a little escape to normality with a quick vacation. And now the virus, or the government, or the airline is keeping them away from that respite. To top it all off the planes are for the most part completely sold out now, in spite of the fact that just a while back the middle seats were being blocked out in the interests of safety for social distancing. Hmmm. It was dangerous to sit close then but not now? Just another inconsistent message.
Next, we should just discuss the concept that people are starting to breathe a sigh of relief. Whether it’s because the threat seems to be declining or that they won’t be forced to obey some stupid rules the outcome is the same. People are feeling a sigh of relief. Restaurants and movie theaters are open, store shelves are stocked, people can buy as much meat and toilet paper as they want.
The list goes on as to what has normalized compared to this time last year. More impactful is that people don’t have to wear masks in most places now. Except for flying on commercial airlines (maybe on mass transit though). So now we take people who have finally started to breathe again and we force them back into a mask they hate. The mask either reminds them of fear, or of anger towards manipulative politicians and a government they don’t trust.
And this brings us to one final point. People are tired and mentally exhausted. Because of the media, including social media, and the government they are just tired of conflicting “truths.” Every human being knows that if there are two conflicting stories that they can’t both be true. But they take sides and fight about what they believe to be the truth and let everyone know that the other side is full of moronic idiots. But for the most part, all of this stays behind keyboards and cell phone screens, until that is when they have to take an airplane flight and get crammed into a tube together.
Now for a personal example that I observed on one recent flight. It happened to be a smaller 50 seat regional jet so people can pretty much hear every nearby conversation. As was the norm there were a few people in the gate area dangling masks off of ears and off noses but they complied as their boarding passes were scanned. But once one of these males was seated, he pulled the mask off his nose and below his upper lip. One lady boarding noticed him as she approached her seat and said, “Oh you are one of those who don’t want to wear their mask? Are we going to have a problem? Because if you ain’t gonna wear that mask correctly then you and me are going to have a problem. Now wear that mask like you are supposed to!” I guess he decided to comply but I was waiting for the explosion.
I’ll close with my “favorite” experience. I was sitting in the window seat and the guy next to me in the middle seat reached up, pulled down his mask, and sneezed. And no, he didn’t cover his mouth. Then get this. He did it again! And no excuse me or anything. Of course, I didn’t say “bless you” because I wasn’t thinking those kind of thoughts right at that moment. In fact, I sorta wanted to punch him, but what he did would have annoyed me just as much pre-Covid. Mostly I was just stunned that the whole proposed point of the mask is to prevent the spread of germs and here he pulls it down and purposefully spreads them! Ironic right?
I’m sure that there are other factors involved and these are just my observations. Hopefully, you took the article in the spirit that it was intended, neither pro nor anti-mask.
And now for my personal opinion. If the majority of the individual States have dropped mask requirements in restaurants, stores, and movie theaters then the FAA/CDC should drop them for the airlines and other mass transit. Or, be consistent and practice real social distancing on the aircraft and block seats to six feet apart.
I could use the legroom.
Dave holds a Master of Aeronautical Science in Aviation Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and currently works for Code1 Maintenance helping military aircraft mechanics get their FAA A&P licenses. He is also a retired CMSgt, having served 4 years on active duty in the USAF and another 34 years in the Air National Guard. Dave has held a wide variety of technical, instructor, consultant, and leadership positions in his nearly 40 years of civilian and military aviation.