Flight Attendants Union President Testifies Before Congress on Airplane Violence

Sara Nelson, the influential International President of the Association of Flight Attendants union, testified before Congress this afternoon on the overwhelming number of incidents of airplane violence against flight crews, saying that if left unchecked it could lead to something bigger and more tragic.

Nelson made her remarks to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security. The hearing was centered on the theme of ‘On the Frontlines in Turbulent Times: Workforce Perspectives on the State of Transportation Security.’


The Federal Aviation Administration has logged more than 5,000 reports of unruly behavior this year among airline passengers. Many have led to acts of physical aggression, fueled largely by the face mask debate but also by the consumption of alcohol.

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“We are on track to log more incidents of disruptive airline passengers in 2021 than we have seen in the history of aviation,” she said. “While the number of bad actors is relatively small, the incidents of disruptions have been so pervasive (that) Flight Attendants wonder every morning they put on their uniform whether it will be a sign of leadership and authority in the cabin to keep everyone safe, or a target for a violent attack.”

In some respects, the incidents have become commonplace; Nelson called that unacceptable and says it sets a dangerous precedent.

“The frequency of events have led some in the media to refer to the disruptive outbursts and violent behavior as a ‘new normal.’ That is something we simply cannot accept for our safety and security,” she said. “Flight attendants are aviation’s first responders, charged with the safety and health of passengers and crew. For the past 20 years, since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, flight attendants have served as the last line of defense in aviation security. … If we allow disruptions in the cabin or distractions due to defiance of passengers to comply with crew instructions to become a regular occurrence, we are in jeopardy of missing cues of a coordinated attack. Every level of threat requires vigilance and scrutiny. We cannot be lulled into a place of accepting these distractions as a new normal.”

Nelson cited a survey earlier this year in which 85 percent of flight attendants said they have experienced unruly passengers just in this calendar year.

She noted that flight attendants cited that mask compliance, alcohol, routine safety reminders, flight delays and cancellations were all common factors in unruly passenger interactions. Many cited multiple factors contributed to incidents, which also implies a compounding effect and an opportunity to reduce incidents.

Flight attendants reported facing extensive verbal abuse, including from visibly drunk passengers, passengers yelling and swearing in response to masking direction, and often aggressively challenging flight crew working to ensure compliance with federal rules.

“Aviation security is at risk when crew are deterred from or delayed in performing safety and security duties,” she testified. “According to the survey results, nearly half of the incidents could be prevented by identifying problems on the ground or preflight, which is an opportunity for dramatically reducing the threat in the air.”

On November 4, the FAA referred 37 of the most violent, physical assaults against crewmembers and passengers to the Department of Justice for federal prosecution. Nelson said the DOJ needs to act quickly on these incidents that have already been fully investigated by the FAA as “the most effective way to deter bad actors and put a stop to the spike in disruptive passengers.”

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