Why people act despite the risks

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Incidents with disobedient passengers in the United States are declining.

However, this may end the good news.

According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, in 2021 there were an average of about 500 reports of disobedient passengers per month. In the first three months of 2022, that number dropped to around 350 messages per month, according to FAA statistics.

This is progress, especially given that there are far more flights than at the beginning of 2021, when incident reports peaked.

However, it is still far from the number of flares recorded during the flight before the pandemic, which occurred between 2014 and 2019, according to CNBC calculations, about 10 times a month.

Why disobedience has skyrocketed

In 2021, nearly 3 in 4 reports of disobedient passengers concerned mask adherence, according to the FAA, which monitors flights departing or arriving in the United States.

For some, the denial of the mask has become a political statement and a sign of personal autonomy, said Sharona Hoffman, co-director of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University Law School.

Many of these people do not want to be told what to do, and flying is “an environment where they are told what to do – all the time – for hours”.

People are used to thinking that they will get an exception.

Sharona Hoffman

Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

According to her, anger in a not very friendly sky is also a manifestation of anger on earth. For each airline video passenger who loses it during the flight, there will be more in grocery stores, school board meetings, and banks.

Covid measures have increased flying stress, Hoffman said. Food, drinks and snacks were removed at one point, “so all the things that used to distract and entertain people have been removed,” she said.

Bryan Del Monte, president of The Aviation Agency, an aviation marketing company, agreed that there could be stress behind the increase in disobedience.

“But I’m under a lot of stress and somehow I don’t go bananas on a plane, I don’t hit a flight attendant … while 20-30 people are filming it,” he said.

Why people continue to act

Threatening or interfering with the crew member’s duties may result in a fine, flight ban, federal prosecution and imprisonment. As most passengers are armed with video cameras on their phones, there is also a risk that they will become an unaware star of the viral video, which could – and has led to – job termination and deportations.

But what is devastating public anger for one person may be an act of gallantry for another, Hoffman said, citing those many who want to be “heroes for antimask supporters.”

Del Monte of the Aviation Agency said people on the flights provoke outbursts of anger, “because they feel they can … We have a place for people who believe they can do what they want, when they want. It’s called prison.”

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Others believe the rules do not apply to them, Hoffman said, adding that “people are used to thinking they will get an exception,” which may have been the case with vaccination.

Hoffman said that although there is a lot of bad behavior on board commercial flights, “people are committing crimes all the time.”

Most do not think they will catch or punish them, she said.

Few people face music

They could be right.

Of the 1,091 reports of disobedient passengers this year, less than 30% were investigated and only 15% led to “coercive measures”. according to the FAA. Still, that’s more than 6% of reports that led to enforcement action in 2021, Del Monte said.

“Coercive action” now means proposed fines, an FAA spokesman told CNBC. In the past, this included warnings and advice, but it ended according to the FAA’s “zero tolerance” policy, which began in January 2021.

“The punishment of these people is obviously not frightening … They are proof of judgment.

Bryan Del Monte

President of the Aviation Agency

Maximum fines have also been increased – from $ 25,000 to $ 37,000 per violation – and one incident could lead to multiple violations, according to the FAA.

But that’s not enough, said Del Monte, according to which much more should be done.

“Punishing these people is clearly not scary,” he said. “The majority [of] – 300, 3,000, 30,000 or $ 3 million – it wouldn’t matter. They are proof of judgment. “

According to him, even fewer people face prosecution. The FAA, which has no power to prosecute, said it released 37 disobedient passengers to the FBI last November. Later that month, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered U.S. lawyers to prioritize the prosecution of federal crimes on commercial aircraft.

Will the bad behavior end soon?

As most of the problems are with the masks, reports of unruly passengers are likely to fall when the mask mandate ends, Del Monte said.

Masks are no longer mandatory on several major European airlines and could expire in the United States on April 18, when the federal mandate expires. On the other hand, Asia is expected to keep its mandates longer. Reports of disobedient pilots in the region are still scarce, in part due to the culture of masking that preceded the pandemic.

Still, even though the mandates are gone, the incidents are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic numbers, Del Monte said.

The FAA said it proposed a $ 5 million fine against disobedient passengers in 2021.

Lindsey Nicholson | Universal Images Group | Getty Images

According to the FAA, about 28% of reports of disobedient passengers in the United States in 2021 were unrelated to masks. If we completely ignore the incidents related to the masks, according to CNBC calculations, the number of disobedient passengers increased by about 1,300% last year compared to the five years before the pandemic.

The most violent attacks on board “have nothing to do with masks,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Cabin Crew Association. in a statement published on 15 February to promote a centralized list of banned passengers shared by airlines.

Still, Del Monte said, the problem is unlikely to go away soon.

“I sincerely doubt … an ignorant fool who is suddenly an expert on epidemiology and the rule of law will be satisfied by a lack of a mask,” he said. “This person will undoubtedly find some other minor injustice to create the conditions under which he will end up in a fine or imprisonment.”

In addition, airlines may have to deal with another mask problem – the “radicalization” of pilots who want their mandates to continue.

“They can replace those who refuse to wear a mask as disobedient,” he said.

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