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'For flight attendants to have that fear, it's really crazy' | Flight attendants taking precautions against unruly passengers

Some flight attendants are taking self-defense courses as incidents of unruly passengers reaches all-time high.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A voluntary self-defense training course, previously suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic but now re-enrolling, is becoming popular for flight attendants. 

A national survey of nearly 5,000 flight attendants revealed 85% of them had dealt with an unruly passenger in the first half of 2021 with nearly 1 in 5 of them experiencing a physical assault.

The FAA reports there have been nearly 4,000 cases of unruly, sometimes dangerous, behavior on passenger planes this year alone. The agency has levied more than a million-dollar in fines to troublesome passengers.

While the FAA does not have criminal prosecution authority, law enforcement partners have formally opened investigations into 693 incidents. 

“This is pervasive, this is really an epidemic at this point,” said Sara Nelson with the Association of Flight Attendants.  

Sanders said she can only theorize why the FAA and airline employees are seeing this level of disturbed passengers.

"With the COVID crisis going on, people have been pent up. There are frustrations and they take it out on the easiest person they can think of," Sanders said.

As a precaution, some flight attendants are learning self-defense techniques. Nelson said training like this is important to combat the undeserved violence.

“[It's] something we have to take very seriously and use every single tool to tamp it down," Nelson said.

Sanders said this is a sad reality.

"For flight attendants to have that fear, it's really crazy,” Sanders said.

In the survey, flight Attendants cited mask compliance, alcohol, routine safety reminders, and flight delays and cancellations as common factors in unruly passenger interactions. The FAA reports these interactions have already racked up $1 million in fines this year.

 American Airlines on Thursday extended its ban on alcohol sales in the main cabin through Jan. 18, 2022, matching federal mask mandates on flights. American is still selling alcohol in business and first class.

While the FAA doesn't have criminal prosecutorial authority, in August it asked airports and local law enforcement to work together to prosecute some of the most egregious cases where it has levied fines. 

RELATED: FAA fines 34 more unruly airline passengers $531,000

The highest individual fine in the latest round announced was $45,000 for a JetBlue passenger on a May 24 flight from New York, N.Y., to Orlando, Fla. The passenger is accused of throwing items, including his carry-on luggage, at others on the plane and walking around the aircraft. He was even accused of laying in the aisle and grabbing a flight attendant by her ankles. After he was put into handcuffs, the plane made an emergency landing in Richmond, Virginia, the FAA said. 

Another hefty fine of $42,000 was given to a passenger who became unruly after refusing to wear a face mask. The passenger on the JetBlue flight on May 16 from Queens,  N.Y., to San Francisco, Calif. allegedly started threatening to hurt another passenger, made stabbing gestures toward others and was snorting what appeared to be cocaine from a plastic bag, the FAA said. The flight was diverted to Minneapolis where the passenger was removed by law enforcement.

The FAA has not identified the passengers fined in these incidents. They have 30 days to respond to the allegations.

Airline unions have asked for a variety of measures including more air marshals, limits on alcohol sales on planes and in airports, and more sharing of information among airlines about disruptive passengers. They are also floating the idea of a new government-maintained list of banned passengers — but one that would be less restrictive than the no-fly list for suspected terrorists.

Tegna and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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