US fines for unruly air travellers surpass $1m as TSA extends mask mandate

Reports of unruly passengers and flight attendant abuse have skyrocketed

Federal officials are extending into January a mandate requiring people on flights and public transport wear face masks to limit the spread of Covid-19.  AP
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The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Friday extended its Covid-19 mask mandate to January 18, 2022, for passengers and employees on planes and public transport across the country.

“Extending the federal mask mandate for travel makes sense for the current health environment and has the travel industry’s full support,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the Travel Association.

The mandate, first introduced in January 2021, was scheduled to expire September 13.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention asserts the extension will help curb the spread of coronavirus.

The mandate has, however, inspired tension that has been compounded by a growing number of people resuming travel, leaving many flight attendants vulnerable to abuse and violence.

There have been more than 3,800 reports of unruly behaviour by passengers this year alone, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported late on Thursday, and out of those mentions are about 2,800 reports of passengers not abiding by the federal travel mask mandate.

Fines for unruly people flying on flights in the US have totalled more than $1 million in 2021, the FAA reported.

The heftiest fine was $45,000 administered to a passenger who threw objects and luggage at other travellers, refused to abide by safety guidelines while flying, and touched a flight attendant inappropriately. The entire incident in May caused an emergency landing.

Another fine of $42,000 was administered to a passenger who refused to wear a face mask on a May flight. They also touched another passenger without their permission and threatened to harm others, which led to an early landing at a different airport where the person were removed from the flight by local law enforcement.

The fines and legal detentions are a part of the FAA's “Zero-Tolerance Policy” enacted in January of this year.

“I have decided to extend the FAA’s unruly passenger zero-tolerance policy as we continue to do everything we can to confront the pandemic,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in March 2020.

“The number of cases we’re seeing is still far too high and it tells us urgent action continues to be required.”

The FAA cannot arrest anyone but they work closely with law enforcement and national security partners at airports.

“We have a responsibility in aviation to keep everyone safe and do our part to end the pandemic rather than aid the continuation of it,” Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) President Sara Nelson said in a statement this week.

“We all look forward to the day masks are no longer required, but we’re not there yet.”

A survey of about 5,000 members of the AFA found that 85 per cent have dealt with unruly passengers at least once this year. Fifty-eight per cent of those surveyed said they experienced at least five incidents of violence or abuse. Assaulting a flight attendant is a federal crime in the US.

“Flight attendants cited that mask compliance, alcohol, routine safety reminders, flight delays and cancellations were all common factors in unruly passenger interactions,” the AFA said in a statement.

Many airlines have ceased offering alcohol to passengers as a result of rising incidents.

Updated: April 27, 2022, 11:38 AM