Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced it had fined 34 airline passengers a total of $532,000 for unruly behavior, including assaulting and threatening flight attendants. In one case aboard a Frontier Airlines flight, a passenger assaulted two flight attendants and threatened to kill one of them.
Another incident saw a passenger grab a flight attendant by the ankles and look up her skirt, while in yet another incident, flight attendants equipped themselves with flex cuffs and ice mallets after one passenger’s behavior became so erratic.
Is it any wonder then that flight attendants are ‘flocking’ to TSA-approved self defense classes? “It’s the most hostile environment that we’ve ever faced,” observes Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) as unruly civil penalties handed down by the FAA top $1 million since the beginning of the year.
Highly trained air marshals have led flight attendant self defense classes since 2004 but the Transportation Security Administration was forced to suspend the program last year because of the pandemic.
The classes were eventually brought back amidst a surge in unruly passenger behavior and they’ve never been so popular.
Four times as many classes are now being scheduled owing to the demand and twice as many attendees are showing up for the voluntary four-hour classes at 24 locations across the United States.
NBC News took an inside look at what these classes entail, including various punches, kicks and restraint holds that flight attendants can use to disable a would-be assailant. The training also involves various de-escalation tactics to prevent an unruly passenger from becoming a serious danger.
“While it is our hope that flight crew members never have need for these tactics, it is critical to everyone’s safety that they be well-prepared to handle situations as they arise,” explained Darby LaJoye, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the TSA Administrator when the program was restarted in June.
But for something that the TSA believes is critical for aviation safety, Nelson and others can’t help but wonder why this voluntary course isn’t mandatory.
“This training should be mandatory and part of our paid initial and recurrent training in order to build the muscle memory to use the tactics immediately when attacks advance without warning,” the union, which represents around 50,000 flight attendants, argues.
AFA says it has been campaigning for mandatory self defense training ever since September 11, 2001. The union continues to pressure airline management, as well as the FAA and Department of Transport to get self defense training included within the mandatory syllabus of annual recurrent training.
With self defense training left up to individual flight attendants, some have turned to duct tape as the tool of choice in restraining violent and abusive passengers. Its use, however, is proving controversial and United’s flight attendants have been ordered not to use duct tape on unruly passengers.
The memo explaining the ban was labelled a “sick marketing stunt” by Nelson who claimed flight attendants were being used as “props” by United management.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.