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Why passengers have been more unruly since the pandemic


The holiday travel season has been relatively smooth so far, though let's not jinx it. I'm flying tonight. Mild weather across much of the country has made air travelers jolly, with airlines canceling flights at much lower rates - knock wood - than last year.


Still, the aviation industry has seen its share of turbulence this year. Unruly passengers are tangling with flight attendants and their fellow passengers more often than they did before the coronavirus pandemic. No one is quite sure why, but there are some theories, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Passengers behaving badly were easy to find this year, like the man who punched a flight attendant in San Francisco...





ROSE: ...Or the passenger who disrupted a flight from Miami to Washington, forcing an emergency landing...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Subject is currently loose in the cabin and tried to breach the cockpit.

ROSE: ...Or this woman, who was arrested after fighting with another passenger before a flight to Philadelphia.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: They're not even from Philly.

ROSE: There have been close to 2,000 reported incidents involving unruly passengers this year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. That's a sharp decline from the height of the pandemic, when mask mandates fueled many of those clashes. Now those mandates are gone, but unruly passenger incidents are still happening more often than before - about 70% more this year than 2019, according to FAA data.

SARA NELSON: Flight attendants are working harder than ever. They're practicing their de-escalation skills almost every single flight.

ROSE: Sara Nelson is the president of the Association of Flight Attendants union. So why are passengers misbehaving more often? Nelson says one big reason is crowding.

NELSON: Today, we're seeing that every single seat is filled up. The more you have humanity packed into one location, the more likely it is that there's conflict.

ROSE: Airlines are flying fewer flights than they were before the pandemic but with a similar number of passengers. The head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Michael Whitaker, agrees this is probably a reason why disruptions are up.

MICHAEL WHITAKER: The flights are very full, and so it can be a pretty stressful experience flying. That's certainly part of it, and I think we've just continued to see less civil behavior. So I think what we can do is make it very clear that we have zero tolerance for that.

ROSE: With fuller planes, boarding takes longer. Overhead bins are packed, and there are fewer options for rebooking when things go wrong. Thom McDaniel is a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines and a vice president with the Transport Workers Union of America.

THOM MCDANIEL: Whenever somebody's been delayed for hours or days and they're sitting in the airport and they're frustrated and they're angry, the closest target is the employee in the airport or the flight attendants on the plane who are getting the brunt of their frustration.

ROSE: Still, crowded planes may not be the only reason that passengers are misbehaving more often. Sheryl Skaggs is a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Dallas. She studied unruly passenger incidents and just co-wrote a paper about them. Skaggs says there are a couple of themes that stand out.

SHERYL SKAGGS: The most significant piece of that is alcohol. In so many of these cases, passengers have been drinking and/or mixing them with some kind of prescription or recreational drugs.

ROSE: But people have been drinking in airports and on planes for a long time, and often, those planes were pretty full, even before the pandemic. Skaggs thinks there may be something else that's changed.

SKAGGS: Post-pandemic, people are just different. They tend to have, you know, shorter fuses. I think that people have just lost their ability to understand what, you know, kindness and patience looks like.

ROSE: In other words, maybe it's not just flying that's gotten worse. Maybe we have, too. Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "FIRE IN THE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.