The drastic rise in unruly passenger incidents throughout 2021 has made it difficult for flight attendants to put on their uniforms and return to the once-friendly skies, according to the president of the world’s largest flight attendant union.
"The uniform is [a] target, perhaps become a target," Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International, told FOX Business.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) most recent data, there have been over 5,000 reports of unruly passenger behavior since the beginning of the year, with an average of 5.6 incidents per 10,000 flights every week.
At this rate, "the number of incidents are on track to be more in 2021 than in the entire history of aviation," according to Nelson's written testimony to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wherein she details the "combative, abusive, defiant and violent behavior on our planes."
However, FAA statistics aren't enough to show the full impact on flight attendants, according to Nelson.
A recent survey conducted by the union, which encompasses nearly 5,000 responses from flight attendants across 30 airlines, shows a "greater impact on workers than the FAA reported numbers provide," according to Nelson.
The data from the July survey revealed that 85% of flight attendants have dealt with unruly passengers as air travel picked up in 2021 with another 17% admitting that the incidents turned physical.
"It doesn't matter what airline you fly for," Nelson told FOX Business. "When flight attendants see another flight attendant getting punched in the face, bloodied, abused, we all feel it."
Still, even with "a lot of trepidation," flight attendants haven't stopped going to work, Nelson added.
"We are aviation's first responders for safety and health emergencies in the cabin, but we're also aviation's last line of defense," Nelson said. "We know the security risks that still exist. And not only are these individual incidents very concerning, possibly very harmful, incredibly risky, but they also bring with it an added problem of creating distractions."
Nelson said a distraction like that is "something that those who wish to cause harm can use in their tool book to try to make people believe that something else is going on. But there's a larger attack."
The industry can't accept this "new normal," she said.
Since January, the FAA has been trying to tackle the problem by enforcing its zero-tolerance policy, which was adopted after the agency saw a "disturbing increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior," the FAA said.
Since then, there have been 950 investigations and about 227 enforcement cases initiated, according to the FAA.
Under the FAA's Reauthorization Bill, the agency can propose up to $37,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases as a repercussion. Still, cases are mounting and employees are left feeling in grave danger.
"I've been yelled at, cursed at and threatened countless times in the last year, and the most that has come out of it has been a temporary suspension of travel for the passenger," one flight attendant wrote in testimony to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "We need real consequences if flight attendants are ever going to feel safe at work again."
While the FAA can propose fines against passengers, the agency can't prosecute criminal cases.
To help, the union is "calling on the Justice Department to use the law that exists to criminally prosecute with up to 20 years in prison for any bad actors, anyone who is creating harm or risk to the rest of the passengers on a flight," Nelson said.
Recently, the union applauded the Justice Department for charging a 20-year-old California man for an alleged Oct. 27 assault on an American Airlines flight attendant.
"While the Federal Aviation Administration has moved to zero-tolerance policies and levied an unprecedented number of civil penalties, the DOJ publicly prosecuting is the only way to truly get the attention of bad actors," Nelson said in a statement after the charges were filed.
These consequences will serve as a "very effective deterrent," according to Nelson.