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Boiling point: Why flight attendants are pushing back against unruly passengers

If someone asked you as a child “what do you want to be when you grow up?” what would your answer have been? If you answered ‘flight attendant’, then you are not alone.

Thanks to the Golden Age of Travel, being a stewardess or a flight attendant was a dream job for many from the 1960s up until the 80s and 90s. 

But do children these days still want to become flight attendants? Perhaps some do, but it no longer seems to be as desirable a career ambition.

In 2019 Statista carried out a survey of children aged eight to 12 year olds from the United Kingdom, the United States and China, showing that youngsters hold the following professions in high regard: influencer (vlogger / YouTuber), teacher, professional athlete, musician and astronaut. 

In fact, flight attendant is does not even rank in the top 20 childhood dream jobs for American children in this 2020 survey carried out by resume builder company Zety

The pandemic saw a spike in unruly passengers, a trend that has continued into the present, which has begun to take its toll on the mental well-being of flight attendants. So it may be safe to say that children today are better off dreaming of a career as a professional vlogger or athlete instead of taking to the skies.

People still want to become flight attendants 

According to The Travel Academy, a company that provides training to flight attendant aspirants, the competition for applicants is still “intense” with 1 to 1.5 million flight attendant applications being received for 5,000 to 10,000 jobs.

While becoming a flight attendant may no longer be a childhood dream, the profession is still an attractive proposition thanks to social media, where jet-setting flight attendants entice millions of followers to take up the seemingly glamorous high-flying, and often high-paying, role.

Source: @flightattendantclub Instagram account

Recently, an Australian flight attendant working for Emirates revealed that she makes about AUD 5,000 ($3,326.00) a month, tax and rent-free working in the airline’s economy cabin, and can rake in much more when assigned to business and first class.

Add to that the travel benefits that come with the job and it’s no wonder people are still lining up to try their luck at becoming a flight attendant. 

In April 2024, Emirates held an open day recruitment in Manila. Thousands of applicants from all over the country lined up as early as 01:00 even though the screening hours were from 07:00 – 11:00.

The long queue of hopefuls later spilled out into the streets and nearby roads.

A new element

Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the common disadvantages or cons associated with being a flight attendant were:

Being on call

Time away from home

Irregular working hours

Frequent time zone changes

Weekend and holiday work

Exposure to cosmic radiation

When air travel finally returned after the pandemic, no one could anticipate the rise of a new disadvantage for flight attendants to regularly deal with – unruly and disruptive passengers. 

With flight attendants being punched, stabbed, and copping for all sorts of abuse from unruly passengers, it can be quite astonishing to see that being a flight attendant is still a highly-coveted career. 

Cases where unruly passengers have endangered the welfare of flight attendants have increased so much that in 2021 the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) former administrator, Steve Dickson, signed an order directing a stricter legal enforcement policy against unruly airline passengers in the wake of troubling incidents. 

Image source: faa.gov

The administration estimated that there were 4.4 unruly passenger incidents for every 10,000 flights.

This may seem like a small number. But as of April 2022, there have been 1,272 reports of unruly passengers, 386 investigations launched, and 206 enforcement action cases initiated.

Just look at the spike in unruly passenger behavior investigations post-pandemic.

Source : faa.gov

Although the spike in unruly passenger incidents experienced in 2021 appears to have subsided, the situation remains nearly twice as severe as before the pandemic. The FAA reported 2,075 incidents in 2023, compared to 1,161 in 2019. As of April 28, 2024, the FAA has received 649 reports of unruly passengers.

Is enforcement enough?

The surge of unruly flight passengers in recent years has concerned the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which in April 2024 sought to ratify a treaty to prosecute offenders.

The United Nations (UN) global aviation body raised the issue on the 10th anniversary of Montreal Protocol 2014 or MP 14.

However, the protocol, which came into force on January 1, 2020, has only been ratified by 47 member states. 

Currently, when a passenger becomes disruptive during a flight, the terms of the Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft (Tokyo Convention 1963) come into play. This means that the offender is bound by the laws of the country in which the aircraft is registered, which is not necessarily the country in which the aircraft lands.

In 2021, the FAA ordered stricter legal enforcement, but it was not enough to protect flight attendants.

It also seems to have done little to deter passengers from behaving badly, with the FAA referring more unruly passenger cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for criminal prosecution review in the first quarter of 2023. 

Below are just a few of the FAA referrals to the FBI in 2023:

March 2023: Tried to open an aircraft door and use a makeshift weapon to assault a flight attendant.

January 2023: Inappropriately touched a 17-year-old passenger.

January 2023: Refused to remain seated, acted erratically, said he needed to fly the aircraft.

January 2023: Assaulted a female passenger.

January  2023: Assaulted a flight attendant.

December 2022: Assaulted flight attendants and passengers.

December 2022:  Tried to strike a flight attendant and enter the flight deck.

December 2022: Assaulted, threatened and intimidated flight attendants.

A call to ban unruly passengers

In April 2023, the Association of Flight Attendants urged the US Congress to support a bill called the Protection from Abusive Passengers Act.

The legislation sought to ban passengers fined or convicted of serious physical violence from commercial flights. The banned passengers would be separate from the FBI’s no-fly list, which is intended to prevent people suspected of terrorism from flying.

The bill aims to improve the safety of aviation workers and passengers.

“This legislation would provide another important tool to crack down on offenders convicted of physical or sexual assault or intimidation of the flight crew or fellow passengers onboard an aircraft or at the airport. Right now, a passenger can be fined or convicted, and may be banned on an individual airline – but that does not prevent this violent offender from flying another airline,” the Association of Flight Attendants said in a press release dated April 2023.

Flight attendants push back: Popcorn and rice gate

It’s important to realize that on top of dealing with unruly passengers, flight attendants are also having to cope with the stress of post-pandemic travel, including increased workload and reduced pay due to staff shortages. These can lead to mental and physical fatigue.

April 2023 was an interesting month for commercial flight and saw two intriguing cases where flight attendants had pushed back against bad behavior.

The first case was the now-renowned “Popcorn gate” which divided opinions of netizens. 

In a now-deleted tweet (and Twitter account), Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Anthony Bass recounted how a United Airlines flight attendant asked his 22-week pregnant wife, who was also traveling with their five and two year old children, to “get on her hands and knees” and pick up the popcorn mess made by his youngest daughter. 

People agree on very little these days, but based on the comments, there’s near a consensus on a situation with a @united flight attendant asking the pregnant wife of @BlueJays pitcher @AnthonyBass52 to pick up popcorn their daughter spilled on a plane. It’s like a soap opera… pic.twitter.com/DB9qgN3EIh

— Dan Kelley (@DanKelley66) April 18, 2023

The story stoked a variety of opinions, with some saying that while it was wrong of the flight attendant to ask the pregnant mother to clean up the mess, she should have cleaned up after her own child. Some comments also asked Bass why he did not clean up the mess left by his child. 

I don’t agree with the flight attendant making a pregnant woman get on her hands and knees on a cramped plane.

However, why did she not correct her kids when they were throwing popcorn all over? There’s popcorn at the feet of those in the seats behind the kids .

Parenting 101 https://t.co/nQwRSwZcM7

— Rob (@_ROB_29) April 17, 2023

“Popcorn gate” was closely followed by an incident dubbed “rice gate”, where a Southwest Airlines flight was delayed for an hour after no one would admit to spilling rice in the aircraft aisle. 

According to passengers, flight attendants refused to allow the pilot to take off until someone cleaned up the rice. One flight attendant walked up and down the aisle, asking who had made the mess. Another flight attendant eventually cleaned up the rice after an hour, but not without giving passengers a sharp scolding about being raised correctly.

What would you do?

Beige de Lange is a former senior cabin crew and flight service instructor for Asiana Airlines who has more than 22 years of experience in the industry. 

In an interview with AeroTime, de Lange said that she believes that passenger expectations of flight attendants have evolved over time.

“Passengers have forgotten all about proper demeanor and etiquette. They cannot tell the difference between a five-star airline and a five-star hotel. They expect the same, not considering the safety risks,” de Lange said.

Referring to “Popcorn gate”, de Lange believes there are two sides to the story. 

She said: “I am not sure if there was a previous conversation between the mother and the flight attendant. I am certain that this couldn’t have just been about popcorn on the floor by a child. If the flight attendant wanted to make a point, she could’ve picked up some of the popcorn and asked the mother to at least help her out if it is a matter of principle.”

Humor can also be used in customer service as a way to be firm without sweating the small stuff. 

Speaking of the “Rice gate” issue, de Lange said: “The flight attendant has probably had enough, but the screaming and the delay were unnecessary. If she wanted to make a point, she could have included it in her announcement and made a joke out of it: ‘To the passenger who dropped the rice, you may now redeem it from the galley together with your lunch’.”

To get a traveling parent’s point of view, AeroTime also spoke to a mother of four who frequently flies with her children. Brooke, not her real name, is based in Hong Kong and travels 200+ days out of a year with all children aged 10 and below. 

Brooke believes that kindness can go a long way, for both flight attendants and parents. 

“It’s already stressful enough traveling with small children, so flight attendants could be kinder to parents. But also, as a parent, if I really needed help, I would ask the flight attendant kindly to help me with the chore, not merely ask the flight attendant to do it for me or my kids,” Brooke said.

“As a former flight attendant myself, I empathize with what flight attendants are going through and always bear that in mind whenever I travel,” she added. 

The solution

Passengers behaving badly is not just exclusive to the US. In 2022, more than 1,000 cases of disruptive behavior experienced by cabin crew were reported in the UK. That is three times the number of cases recorded pre-COVID. 

Flight attendants across the globe have also reached boiling point. In 2022, an IndiGo flight attendant was seen engaging in a shouting match with a passenger after confusion over the meal service.

In March 2023, two flight attendants walked off a flight after a heated argument with each other resulted in a flight delay. 

In April 2025, an American Airlines flight attendant locked a mother and child in an aircraft lavatory, resulting in the airline facing a lawsuit.  

The smallest things are also driving passengers to engage in the most bizarre behaviors, such as assaulting flight crew members over unsatisfactory meal presentation and throwing a massive tantrum or even forcibly kissing a flight attendant when refused pre-departure drinks.

Whether the outrageous antics of both passengers and flight attendants are justified or not, one thing is clear: the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and well-being worldwide cannot be underestimated.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide due to the pandemic. Those figures are from reported data. Millions more are undergoing mental and emotional stress in silence.

The Protection from Abusive Passengers Act is currently only a bill, and it can still be vetoed from becoming a law. Even then, the US Department of Justice itself said that the severity of punishment does little to prevent crime

The simple solution is to extend kindness on both sides. Everyone, flight attendants and passengers alike, are carrying varying degrees of personal stress so small acts of patience and courtesy can pay off. 

And if you find this a little too trite, think about it this way – your safety lies in the hands of flight attendants, so it would be wise to ensure their well-being.

The post Boiling point: Why flight attendants are pushing back against unruly passengers appeared first on AeroTime.

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