A Career Flight Attendant on the Wildest Bad Behavior She's Seen In-Flight: Urination, Strip Teases & More

Sara Nelson is president of The Association of Flight Attendants and shares the horror stories she has seen in the skies on a new episode of the PEOPLE Every Day podcast

With the holiday season upon us, airline employees are prepared to accommodate record travel numbers as many people brave the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to get quality time with their loved ones as 2021 comes to a close. But with tensions and anxiety at an all-time high due to the current state of the world, career flight attendant Sara Nelson explains in an episode of the PEOPLE Every Day podcast that unruly and disruptive behavior on planes is currently "off the charts."

"It is exponentially higher than any other year in aviation history, and I can't really blame it on COVID," she explains. "I think that we have to recognize that there's been two different narratives during this pandemic that have kept people in a state of anxiety because they don't know what to believe."

Having spent 25 years in air travel, Nelson has seen plenty of bad behavior, but never on this level and never with this frequency, from what she hears from other flight attendants: "Every single day, they're having people maybe not rise to the level of needing to be reported, but being really combative in their language, and just... refusing to comply with instructions without a lot of interference and a lot of attempts to deescalate situations."

Delta Arlines flight from Regan National Airport to Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport
Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty

Nelson is president of The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents more than 50,000 workers across 17 airlines, and she is worried that this increased stress is affecting employees who are just trying to do their job while also putting their own health at risk.

"The danger there is that they become hesitant in conducting their safety responsibilities and that's the last thing we need," she says. "In addition to the fact that we just don't want people going to work in that hostile environment, we just cannot accept this as a new norm, and we have to do everything we can to stop it."

The main source of conflict she sees is mask refusal, followed by bad behavior as a result of inebriation. On top of that, Nelson reveals that 61% of recent incidents also include racial, gender and homophobic slurs, often directed at staff members.

"We're seeing people have to take more abuse based on who they are, or who they love, or what they look like than maybe ever before," she says; she recalls the story of one Black flight attendant who was so affected by a racist incident, she was scared to leave her house.

"She was followed by these people when she got off the plane and when she went home, she felt so unsafe that she couldn't leave her home for five days," Nelson says. "And it has taken her months and months to even be able to talk about this incident."

These types of occurrences were once rare, Nelson says, but they are unfortunately becoming a regular event. Flight attendants now wake up wondering if their uniform will be a sign of leadership and authority or a target for attack.

Some of the crazier incidents she's seen recently have included a passenger spitting into the mouth of a child and others protesting by urinating all over the plane — and regarding the latter, Nelson says she's "surprised that we don't have video of the urination because the number of reports that we get from flight attendants [about that] are just more than you would ever imagine."

Prior to COVID, Nelson's craziest incident was an unruly passenger during an overnight flight from Las Vegas to Chicago.

"First, he was smoking in the bathroom, then he was trying to open the back door," she recalls. "Then he also decided it was a good idea to urinate all over the back galley, and then he did a strip tease for the people in the back."

To take care of the issue, Nelson channeled the teacher she planned to become before taking her current job. "I said to him, 'Listen, if you don't sit down and keep your hands to yourself right now, we're going to land in Des Moines and that's where you're going to spend the rest of your time. But if you stay quiet and in this seat, we'll go to Chicago and you're going to go off in handcuffs there,'" she says. "Somehow that teacher voice did the trick and he stopped. And when we got to Chicago, police came on and escorted him off in handcuffs."

For passengers who find travel stressful, Nelson advises that they prepare for their flight before arriving to the airport, reading up on anything to know ahead of time online. She also suggests acknowledging your flight attendants upon boarding and creating a human interaction.

"Just say thank you, because they're away from their families and they've been through hell for the last two years," she adds. "That extra kindness will go a long way to setting the tone for your flight and making sure that they know that you have their back."

Check out more episodes of PEOPLE Every Day, airing on iHeartMedia, Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Amazon Music or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Related Articles