This week, the Federal Aviation Administration updated its collection of unruly passenger statistics showing that the number of incidents remains high when compared to pre-pandemic levels. According to the FAA, there were 2,031 reports of an unruly passenger onboard a commercial aircraft in 2023. That’s a 19% drop from 2022 but still 57% more than the number of incidents reported in 2019. While the annual figure sharply decreased from the peak year 2021 as the federal government lifted COVID-19 restrictions, experts only seem to have partial explanations for why they remain high.
In interviews with NPR, some experts said that airlines are providing fewer flights, which results in planes being filled to the max. With that, the stress of constantly crowded flights and the frustrations that go along with them — long lines, delays, limited luggage space, etc — increase the stresses of air travel. “The flights are very full, and so it can be a pretty stressful experience flying. That’s certainly part of it, and I think we’ve just continued to see less civil behavior,” said Michael Whitaker, the head of the FAA.
A study of unruly passengers published last year showed that while industry factors such as canceled flights or poor customer service may trigger an outburst, the person acting out is often under the influence of alcohol. The research, which focused on 915 incidents in the years 1999 to 2020, found that most of the time, in both verbal or physical altercations, the unruly passenger was intoxicated. Yet, no one thinks the solution is to ban alcohol as it has been served to millions for decades without issue.
But exactly why the total number of incidents in 2023 was nearly double that of 2019 is unclear. Sheryl Skaggs, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Dallas who co-authored the study, told NPR that “post-pandemic, people are just different. They tend to have, you know, shorter fuses. I think that people have just lost their ability to understand what, you know, kindness and patience looks like.”
In past years, the FAA has provided other data points alongside the total number of incidents. These include the total number of investigations initiated, enforcement actions, and dollar value of the fines collected. But as of writing this article, that information was not available for 2023. The FAA explains that it has a zero-tolerance policy, meaning that it will issue fines instead of warning letters to passengers for unruly behavior. Additionally, unruly passengers could also be subjected to jail time and travel restrictions.
But there’s a difference between the written consequences and how they’re enforced. Since the FAA is a civil agency, it has no arresting authority and has to refer cases to the FBI for further investigation. And for law enforcement actions, as Forbes reported, there are often jurisdictional issues (and they’re even more confusing for disturbances aboard international flights). So there might be little or no punishment for an unruly passenger who deliberately ignores the command of a flight crew member. The exception, though, is for physical assaults of a crew member, which account for only a small percentage of the incidents (approximately 5%, according to the aforementioned study).
With limited options, the airline industry has taken to training flight crews in de-escalation tactics and launching awareness campaigns to inform the public of the consequences of unruly behavior. On top of that, labor groups are advocating for airlines to hire more support crew, so there’s enough staff relative to the number of passengers.