- There have been 4,837 incidents of disturbances on flights this year, according to the FAA.
- Criminal charges were brought up in only one incident.
- Flight attendants told Insider they're absolutely burnt out and don't know what to expect each day.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, disturbances and violent incidents on planes have been on the rise… and flight attendants have had enough.
The rise of incidents – and what some flight attendants described as a lack of accountability – has forced some to reconsider whether or not they want to remain in the industry.
Mary, whose identity is known to Insider, but spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, started as a flight attendant for an ultra-low-cost carrier in January 2020, right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said the incidents have only gotten worse with each passing month since she started.
"Every month we sit there and think 'Oh, okay. They can't get worse than this, the passengers.' Then something happens and they do and it's just really disheartening," Mary told Insider. "It's a job that you obviously get into cause you love it and you love being around people and helping people. It's just, we're all burnt out. Everybody I talk to is burnt out."
In 2019, FAA data says there were only 146 investigations.
Flights without any disturbances are rare and a relief for the crew
"It used to be really that every few weeks you'd have an incident or something and you have to file a report, but now it's like every single flight there is an incident. If you have a flight where nobody's yelling at you and you don't have to deal with people with a mask or anything then you just sit there afterward with the other flight attendants like 'Oh my God. I love passengers.' That's how rare it is," Mary said.
However, Mary said between being overworked and exhausted, she's started to dread writing reports on her own time, especially because she feels they rarely get addressed.
In one incident, she said a passenger told her "to go ahead and write a report" and he would have her "fired by the time she was done blowing the pilots."
"I just was like, 'I can't even write a report about this. I can't deal with this anymore.' We don't get paid to write reports. We have to write them in our off time," she said, adding she sometimes spends entire layovers just filling them out.
Mary is actively applying to switch to another airline but is unsure if the "grass is always greener on the other side."
Alcohol is a main contributor to in-flight disturbances
Henry, whose real identity is known to Insider, but spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, also works for an ultra-low-cost carrier and told Insider mask issues and alcohol seem to be the root of the problem.
"We had to divert a few planes that I was on for violence. A lot of them were alcohol-induced and we were the only airline for most of the pandemic that actually served alcohol in coach," he said.
Henry, who has spent seven years as a flight attendant, attributed the rise in incidents to low flight costs attracting "a crowd that usually doesn't fly that much, or seems like they don't get out of the house that often because they don't know how to behave in the airports or on the aircraft themselves."
One incident he described involved a group of women who tried to help themselves to liquor locked up in the airplane galley and got physical with another flight attendant who told them to take their seats. Henry said he had to step in and restrain them. The plane then landed and the women were taken into custody by police, but he said it was unfortunate the flight had to divert course because of the incident.
An epidemic problem
A Flight Attendants Union survey from this summer found that 85% of 5,000 flight attendants surveyed said they dealt with unruly passengers, with about 20% also saying they've dealt with a physical incident this year.
Mitra Amirzadeh, an Association of Flight Attendants member and flight attendant on a low-cost carrier told Insider while she's seen numerous incidents on flights, she's never personally experienced them and won't tolerate them.
"Nothing about me says 'please let's try today,' and I exude it like tenfold. So for me, I don't have these encounters with people the way my coworkers do, unfortunately. If there's a problem on the plane, they actually come and get me because I'm the one that's going to most likely be able to diffuse it, because I just don't put up with that," Amirzadeh told Insider.
She explained that in some cases, she's seen passengers randomly hit flight attendants. Last week, for example, an American Airlines flight attendant was admitted to the hospital with broken bones after a passenger she bumped into got up and punched her in the face.
Following the incident, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said the unruly behavior "has to stop."
Amirzadeh said it might change her perspective if she was ever randomly assaulted, but for now, she says she's worked very hard to become a flight attendant and is hopeful this rise in incidents will subdue with time.
Flight attendants understand the pandemic added stress to flying
Amirzadeh said she understands that traveling through the pandemic might have been rough on passengers and made some act in ways they normally wouldn't have.
"They're annoyed. They are frustrated with all the things going on in their own personal life and traveling itself has always been difficult," she said.
She added that for someone who may be traveling with kids to a funeral, for example, a flight attendant asking them to put on a mask may be the final straw, but she stressed that flight attendants still have to enforce those rules for safety.
Henry and Mary also said masks have been a contentious issue between flight attendants and passengers. Mary said she'd file reports on masks "religiously" to her airline but it would only say it's looking into a report after every 10 to 15 instances.
"We were the front line workers for the company and have to watch them not have our back pretty much at all. It's just been really discouraging," Mary said.
Making the zero-tolerance policy permanent and fixing requirements
Sara Nelson, president of AFA, told Insider the union is working to get the FAA to "continue the zero-tolerance policy and make it permanent," and is looking to the Department of Justice to criminally prosecute offenders.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson signed an order in January that allows for a stricter legal enforcement policy against passengers who are unruly on flights, which lets the agency pursue legal action against passengers who intimidate, threaten, or assault staff on flights.
Insider previously reported that only one case of inflight violence has had criminal charges filed by the Department of Justice.
Nelson said the current trajectory of cases could make 2021 the year with the largest number of incidents in the entire history of aviation.
Henry said he'd actually like to see airlines remove mask requirements for passengers who show proof of vaccination because it takes the pressure and threat of violence off flight attendants who have to enforce that rule.
Amirzadeh said the mask issue is really contentious when it comes to people eating and drinking. She said airlines allow passengers to remove their masks in these instances, but that doesn't mean they could leave their masks off as they slowly sip on a beverage and continue to talk with each other throughout the process.
She said on a number of occasions she's had to tell groups of people to put their masks back on between drinks.
Amizadeh said she wants passengers to understand flight attendants are their first line of defense in the sky, and if they're distracted dealing with unruly passengers, it makes it harder to attend to possible emergencies on a flight.
"One of the things that the world is missing is that at 38,000 feet, we are all you have," she said.
"It feels like I spend the majority of my time managing grown-ups that are misbehaving or behaving poorly when I should be worried about making sure that everybody's safe."