Flight Attendants Are Training In Self-Defense as Unruly Passengers Incident Continue to Rise

According to a recent study, 17% of cabin crew polled claim to have been in a physical altercation with a passenger in the last year

flight attendant
Photo: Getty

Flight attendants are no strangers to unruly passengers. But with the number of people acting up on flights increasing, some have started to learn self-defense.

The Transportation Security Administration is aiming to train hundreds of flight attendants in self-defense over the next few months. The TSA opted to resume the half-day course created in 2004 after putting it on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic as incidents on planes increase.

Carrie, a flight attendant who took a class in the Miami area, told CNN that it's important for her and her colleagues to be as prepared as possible for physical altercations.

"You get on a plane full of people and some of them are not very happy and you just never know what's going to happen," she said.

Travelers wearing protective face masks arrive at Orlando International Airport on the Friday before Memorial Day
Travelers head to the airport wearing masks. Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

During the training, flight attendants are taught a slew of skills to help keep themselves and others out of harm's way. Learning to strike, stomp and subdue a potential attacker tops the list.

Participants in the training also practiced combatting an individual with a deadly weapon, like a knife. Going for the attacker's eyes and striking them with an elbow is also taught.

"You are going to possibly die. You need to defend yourself at all costs," an instructor told the trainees in Miami.

A recent survey from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA detailed the depth of the problem. According to Conde Nast Traveler, 85 percent of flight attendants said they have dealt with an unruly passenger within the last year.

The study also showed 58 percent of those surveyed experienced at least five incidents in the first half of 2021 alone. Of the more than 5,000 individuals across 30 airlines polled between late June and early July, 61 percent of those surveyed said passengers had used sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs against them at some point.

"This survey confirms what we all know, the vitriol, verbal, and physical abuse from a small group of passengers is completely out of control, and is putting other passengers and flight crew at risk," Sara Nelson, AFA-CWA's president, said in a statement last Thursday.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there were 3,715 reports of unruly passengers and 2,749 mask-related incidents in the last year. Ninety-nine enforcement cases have been initiated as well.

Reports of uncooperative guests on flights increased significantly between 2020 and 2021. Last year, just 183 investigations were initiated. In 2021, there have been 683 investigations through August 1 alone. However, air travel was down significantly overall in 2020 due to the pandemic.

The FAA says it can propose up to $37,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases. The maximum civil penalty per violation previously was $25,000, with one incident potentially resulting in multiple violations.

These hefty fines have not stopped thousands of travelers from acting out on planes. Flight attendants hope self-defense training will help them.

The mask mandate on flights -— which is currently in effect until September 13 —has been one of the largest triggers, according to the AFA-CWA survey. Alcohol, safety reminders, flight delays and cancellations have also been said to trigger episodes.

Alcohol has played a role in the increased number of unruly passengers in recent months as well. American Airlines has banned alcohol service in coach through at least September 13. Southwest Airlines has adopted the same rule indefinitely.

In January, flight attendants faced unsafe working conditions as individuals who took part in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol traveled to and from Washington D.C. by air. Videos circulated on social media for days afterward showing passengers and crew members being harrassed, refusing to wear masks and disobeying verbal instructions.

"It's just more imperative that we take care of ourselves and take care of our passengers because people are anxious, and they're upset, and they're frustrated, and sometimes that comes out inappropriately," Carrie told CNN.

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