September 23, 2021

Chairs DeFazio, Larsen Statements from Subcommittee Hearing on the Surge in Air Rage and its Effects on Workers, Airlines, and Airports

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Rick Larsen (D-WA) during today’s hearing titled, “Disruption in the Skies: The Surge in Air Rage and its Effects on Workers, Airlines, and Airports.” Videos of DeFazio and Larsen’s opening statements are here and here. More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Chair Larsen, for calling today’s hearing on the spike in air rage cases. Even as we continue to fight a pandemic, the amount of disruption and violent behavior on planes has reached epidemic proportions. Today, flight attendants, a representative of airports, and the head of security from Airlines for America will allow us to examine how air rage cases unfold on planes, how airports and law enforcement respond, and what airlines are doing in the aggregate to respond to these incidents.

In one incident in May, a flight attendant lost two teeth in an altercation after a passenger repeatedly ignored instructions and then became physically confrontational. In another, a belligerent passenger tried to break down the cockpit door, was handcuffed, broke free, and then struck the flight attendant trying to subdue him a second time. Today we will hear from a flight attendant who has encountered disruptive and unruly passengers on numerous occasions and can speak to the anxiety and fear many flight attendants feel going to work each day.

Recognizing the growing trend of belligerence, in January the FAA issued an order directing staff to pursue a “zero-tolerance” policy for cases relating to interference with crewmembers and other unruly conduct on board aircraft. It’s clear this policy, which I commended the Administrator for adopting in a letter in August, has worked. The FAA reported just this morning that the number of unruly passenger incidents last week had dropped to 50 percent of the number in early 2021. But the rate of these incidents is still too high: it’s twice the rate of cases reported in late 2020. And the FAA inspectors who handle these cases are also responsible for conducting oversight and surveillance of the aviation system’s safety. They can’t continue without some relief.

Beyond this morning’s announcement, let’s look at the total numbers. The FAA reported that as of September 21, 2021, there have been 4,385 unruly passenger reports since the beginning of the 2021 calendar year. Two weeks ago, that number was 4,184, so that’s just over 200 new reports in the last two weeks alone.

Moreover, there needs to be cooperation at the federal and state levels, as well as continued coordination within the aviation industry to stop the surge of air rage cases. First and foremost, the FAA must continue to coordinate with other federal agencies.

While the FAA’s civil penalties have gone a long way to dissuade and deter dangerous and disastrous behavior—FAA fines issued for unruly flyers just topped $1 million last month—other penalties must be enforced for the most violent offenders. In many cases these penalties must be brought in criminal court, under the jurisdiction of the DOJ. Yet in an article published earlier this month, DOJ said it had only filed charges in federal district courts for 16 defendants, matching the total number of unruly passengers federally charged the previous year. Given the discrepancy in cases between last year and this year, that is not satisfactory or commensurate with the serious number of cases. 

Cooperation must also continue with airports and local law enforcement. When a flight arrives with an unruly passenger in need of intervention, the airport must work with airport and local law enforcement to meet the plane at the gate. Airlines and the FAA must also work together to create best practices so that crews know how to interact with local law enforcement, and that local law enforcement in turn communicates that information to the FBI, ensuring that all the relevant information is gathered and needed reports filed.

Finally, airports and their restaurants and other concessionaires must work to curb passenger intoxication and the occurrence of passengers carrying on and consuming alcohol on flights. There is no reason that a passenger should be able to leave a restaurant with a “to-go” cup of alcohol and board a plane with it.

I applaud Administrator Dickson’s letter to airports across the country requesting that airports work with their concessionaires to amplify the FAA’s prohibition on consuming alcoholic beverages not served by crewmembers on board flights. While alcohol may not always be the primary instigator in some of these confrontations, adding gratuitous alcohol to a violent situation certainly exacerbates the problem and subsequent danger to flight crew and the traveling public.

Some have argued about the cause of air rage cases and try to pin it on the federal mask mandate, which has saved innumerable lives. There’s no question that alcohol and possibly other substances play a significant role in driving otherwise-reasonable people to commit outrageous acts upon their fellow passengers and crewmembers. One thing that needs to happen, and to happen today, is that airports must compel their concessionaires to sell alcohol responsibly. Posting a big sign in the terminal advertising “alcohol to-go” is not selling alcohol responsibly.

While I am relieved that people have begun to return to the skies, we must remain vigilant in ensuring their safe travel. That includes doing what we can to clamp down on this alarming increase in belligerent behavior. The primary solution is simple—passengers need to comply with federal and airline face mask requirements and practice kindness and respect toward air crews and fellow passengers. In the meantime, I look forward to working with my colleagues to see what we can do to support those on the front line.

Thank you to all of our witnesses for being here today. I look forward to your testimony.

Chair Larsen:

Good morning and welcome to today’s witnesses joining the Aviation Subcommittee’s hearing titled “Disruption in the Skies: The Surge in Air Rage and its Effects on Workers, Airlines, and Airports.”

As the nation works to get to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, the surge in public air rage incidents has exacerbated the already tenuous workforce situation in our aviation sector and eroded confidence in air travel.

These incidents have also put the safety of frontline workers, passengers and the nation’s aviation system at risk and could potentially lead to further safety issues.

Unruly passenger behavior is not a new phenomenon.

From 2015 to 2020, FAA initiated a total of 786 investigations into unruly passenger behavior.

However, through the first nine months of 2021, FAA has initiated 789 investigations.

Airlines have filed 4,385 unruly passenger complaints since the beginning of the calendar year, including 3,199 mask-related complaints.

As Sara Nelson will testify, frontline aviation workers have to deal with everything from vulgar language, including racial epithets, to punching, kicking, biting, shoving and spitting from passengers.

This behavior from a small percentage of the traveling public is disgusting, unacceptable and a danger to fellow passengers, crew and the entire U.S. aviation system.

Congress, the federal government and the aviation industry must work together to protect airline crews, airport staff and the traveling public from passenger outbursts while also preparing for the next public health and national security crises.

As Subcommittee Chair, I have made aviation safety and enhancing the air travel experience for passengers and crews a priority.

Three years ago, I worked with then-Subcommittee Chair Frank LoBiondo to pass the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which increased the maximum civil penalty per unruly passenger violation by 48 percent to $37,000.

When incidents began to rise after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Chair Peter DeFazio and I encouraged FAA Administrator Dickson to use the full weight of federal law to protect airline passengers and crews ahead of the Inauguration.

Earlier this year, FAA announced a series of measures to combat passenger issues, including a zero-tolerance policy and a public awareness campaign that showed noticeable results.

But Congress and government agencies can only do so much.

I was encouraged to see this week that FAA urged airlines to take additional steps to address this issue, though there is confusion about what FAA is asking of airlines and others in the aviation sector.

I look forward to hearing from today’s witnesses about the enforcement of U.S. laws prohibiting such behavior and what more Congress and agencies can do to support frontline workers.

The public health response must lead the economic recovery.

Lessons learned from the ongoing pandemic show the urgent need for a national aviation preparedness plan to improve the safety of aviation crews, employees and passengers minimize disruptions to the national aviation system and restore confidence in air travel.

I reintroduced my bill, the National Aviation Preparedness Plan Act, earlier this year with my colleague Rep. Don Beyer (VA-08).

With a clear and consistent plan in place, I am confident the U.S. aviation system will be better prepared for future crises.

Before we begin, I want to thank the women and men on the frontlines of the aviation industry who continue to keep people and the economy moving during these difficult times.

Today’s witnesses represent stakeholders for air carriers, airports and frontline workers who can speak to the current situation and what changes need to be made to reduce these incidents.

I am pleased to welcome Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants – Communications Workers of America (CWA).

Ms. Nelson will provide the subcommittee with personal experience both as a frontline flight attendant and as president of a union representing 17 airlines across the aviation sector.

Mr. Teddy Andrews is a long-time flight attendant with American Airlines and will be speaking today on behalf of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

Mr. Andrews can provide his first-hand experience as a frontline flight attendant during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the horrifying abuse he has been subjected to while, as he will say, simply doing his job.

Ms. Lauren Beyer is Vice President for Security and Facilitation for Airlines for America and has worked on a variety of issues related to aircraft safety during the pandemic.

I look forward to hearing from her about the airline industry’s efforts to address passenger behavior and what other supports airlines need to do so.

The Subcommittee will also hear from Mr. Christopher Bidwell, Senior Vice President of Security at Airports Council International—North America.

It is important to hear steps airports are taking to prevent potential unruly passengers from boarding aircraft as well as additional measures Congress and federal agencies can undertake.

In my district and across the country, transportation means jobs and is key to economic recovery.

Without safe, reliable commercial air travel, I would not be able to get to and from work, my constituents would not be able to travel to see family and friends and frontline aviation workers would be without a job.

Congress, the federal government and the aviation industry must work together to reduce unruly passenger incidents and ensure passengers and crews are safe to fly.

I look forward to today’s discussion on how to best support your critical work moving forward.