They’ve been cursed out, grabbed and even punched in the head.
Flight attendants are now speaking out publicly about the stress of managing increasingly unruly passengers at 35,000 feet, a job that’s gotten more difficult in recent months as passengers return to the skies after months of lockdowns. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced flight attendants to enforce federal rules requiring masks on planes, a mandate that’s touched a political nerve for many Americans and led to a rise in bad behavior onboard.
“It’s definitely out of control,” said flight attendant Matthew Cook, one of two flight attendants who agreed to speak to CNBC on the record as long as their employer wasn’t identified. “I have apprehensions [about] going to work every day. I have a lot of anxiety.”
Most flight attendants have kept quiet about the rise of unruly passengers out of fear of retaliation by their employers.
“Absolutely, our jobs are getting harder,” said Mitra Amirzadeh, a flight attendant who also works for a major airline. “We had a gate agent that was punched in the head so bad, so severely, that she had to go to the hospital and ended up with a knot the size of an orange … on top of her forehead.”
Amirzadeh has worked in the industry for six years, including through the pandemic and said she’s never seen passengers behave this badly.
“I think people are using the mask mandate as an excuse for poor behavior. A rule is a rule,” Amirzadeh said. She’s worried the situation could get even worse once her airline resumes serving alcohol in the coming weeks.
“I do think that doing that could cause additional concerns and problems within the cabin,” she said.
The Federal Aviation Administration currently enforces a zero-tolerance policy toward passengers who cause disturbances on flights or fail to obey flight crew instructions in violation of the FAA’s regulations, according to its website.
The agency said 150 cases of unruly passengers were reported in the past week — the biggest weekly surge of the summer.
Passengers wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19 are seen on an escalator at Orlando International Airport.
Paul Hennessy | LightRocket | Getty Images
There have been more than 3,400 reports of unruly passengers so far this year, including more than 2,400 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal mask mandate. In addition, the agency has proposed more than $682,000 in fines against unruly passengers.
According to a recent survey by data platform Dynata, 22% of adults said they refuse to wear a mask while flying, while 7% think it’s OK to take frustration out on flight staff.
But Amirzadeh said passengers who assault flight attendants should face even stiffer penalties:
“If it were up to me, not only would they go to jail, they’d pay a fine. And they wouldn’t be allowed to fly any air carrier [ever again],” Amirzadeh said. “They’d be riding Amtrak.”
Cook, who has clocked more than 1 million miles over his career, said some of his colleagues are considering early retirement, even switching careers because of unruly passengers.
“I’ve had the F-bomb dropped on me, [and I’ve been given] side-eye, lip, and temper tantrums,” Cook recalled. “I don’t know if they’re going to get violent. And I don’t wanna have to deal with that kind of situation.”
In May, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant sustained facial injuries and lost two teeth after a passenger “repeatedly ignored standard inflight instructions and became verbally and physically abusive upon landing,” Southwest told NBC News in a statement.
The 28-year-old suspect was later charged with felony battery in the incident and the airline has since banned her from flying with them again.
Another flight attendant with three decades of experience said passengers are increasingly pushing the envelope more and making flight attendants’ jobs, like hers, more difficult.
It’s becoming “a more volatile situation,” she said, asking to remain anonymous out of fear of losing her job.
Wearing a mask is non-negotiable, she said. Flight attendants can be fired if they don’t enforce the FAA’s rules, she said.
The flight attendants also mentioned the lack of respect many passengers have for the industry.
Passengers think flight attendants are just “pouring sodas and having a great time,” said Cook, adding that travelers lose sight that we are people as well who are just doing their jobs. “We’re trying to get people to where they need to be safely, and hopefully, as smoothly as possible.”