The developing crisis of airborne anger is partially a symptom of the post-pandemic society. But it’s also partially self-inflicted by the airlines.
Last week, it was revealed an FO had threatened to shoot his Captain over disagreement with a medical diversion decision.
The week before, an off-duty pilot riding the cockpit courtesy jumpseat had to be physically subdued before he could yank the fire suppression handles, killing the engines and probably all 83 souls aboard.
There’s plenty of violence in the back of the aircraft too. IATA reported that unruly passenger incidents were nearly 50% more frequent last year: one for every 568 flights in 2022, compared with 835 flights in 2021. The UK CAA, for example, saw a three-fold increase of sexual assault, physical violence, mass brawls, drunken threats, and verbal abuse. Flight attendants have been bloodied and had teeth knocked out.
This is, in my opinion, an outgrowth of the polarization, the anxiety, and the declining civility in societies. Fueled by social media, including deliberate misinformation bots, people’s frustrations and fears are being amped up. It’s become acceptable in some circles to ‘hate’ someone who does not look like you, who does not think like you. And it’s becoming increasingly ‘normal’ to vent your anxiety by speaking out and lashing out at whomever crosses your path.
With Covid quarantines, online video meetings spiked, and business travel plummeted. But when the pandemic was declared over (is it?), leisure ‘revenge travel’ exploded (as in, I owe myself a trip somewhere), at least temporarily. The result is more inexperienced passengers who don’t necessarily understand (or care about) the unwritten rules of flying in an aluminum / composite tube, crammed together and forced to interact with other people after being relatively isolated at home for months.
Airlines only exacerbated the anger by layering on fees for every conceivable ‘service’ – things that used to be embedded in the ticket price such as baggage, seat choice, food, oxygen… and staff courtesy.
With the mass retirements of veteran aviation personnel – not just senior pilots but flight attendants, controllers, gate agents, ground ops, and middle management as well – there are severe workforce shortages. Experience levels are significantly reduced. And it shows.
Airlines seem to have lost the customer service culture. Former air marshal Jonathan Gilliam said, “The care for the patrons is no longer there. And now, like every other industry, they have people who just aren’t customer-service oriented.”
And because of it, flying has become an ordeal of check-in queues, security screening hassles, a battle for overhead rack space, and a claustrophobic cruise.
Blame it on the public, if you will, and their embrace of low-cost, no-frills airlines. However, with the exception of a couple of carriers, frankly, the discomfort of the business-class journey is only slightly less.
Now, on top of being treated like cash cattle, passengers get to fret about new potential flight risks. Are the pilots flying my plane trained well enough to handle certain emergencies? (Some airlines are reportedly promoting FOs to Captain after only a year, an event that used to require several years.) Is one of the pilots on my flight carrying a loaded weapon? Did he (or she) have a really bad day, a fight with their spouse, lost a loved one, and they’re going to snap around FL30?
The (now former) Alaska Airlines pilot, Joseph Emerson, told police he’d had a nervous breakdown, had been struggling with depression and hadn’t slept for 40 hours. He also said he had taken psychedelic mushrooms. And claimed to have lost a close friend ‘recently,’ though it was later learned this was six years ago. “I’m not okay,” Emerson is reported as saying just before his aborted attempt to sabotage the Embraer 175LR.
(Now former) Delta First Officer Jonathan Dunn, who was legally packing a pistol in the cockpit as part of the Federal Flight Deck Officer program (created after the 9-11 hijackings), threatened to shoot his Captain… “multiple times,” according to the court filing. Dunn had been relieved of his duties as an Air Force Reserve officer for refusing Covid vaccination, and sought to have the US Supreme Court intervene on religious grounds (he was denied.) A US solicitor general cited other reasons for his dismissal, including “poor judgment and abuse of authority.”
So Dunn allegedly vented his rage against ‘the system’ at his cockpit mate. And, by extension, at his passengers.
Wars, political outrage (real or imagined), mistrust in government and corporations (including airlines), racism, immigration / refugees, abortion, guns, drugs and other cultural or moral battles are all contributing to an increase in violent tendencies by individuals and groups.
The airline industry cannot do much about the persistent angst of societal ills, but I’d suggest it might consider trying to reduce the risks to its own future growth in these areas:
Prevention can be as basic as removing opportunities for risk. For example, stop serving alcohol on flights; for that matter, stop serving alcohol to passengers once they have passed through security screening at the airport.
Some will also propose eliminating cockpit jumpseat privileges. Or cancelling the FFDO program. I’ll leave it to those in the trenches to debate the pros and cons of these options, but removing the internal threat from the cockpit does certainly reduce the risk.
There needs to be better training for airline and airport employees to identify potential problem passengers before they get on the airplane. Just as there are training programs for spotting human traffickers, there should be better awareness of drunk, drugged and disorderly pax. And airlines must stand behind employees who report suspicious persons. Will some innocent people miss a flight? Perhaps. But better a little inconvenience than the chaos we are seeing onboard.
Mitigation in the form of mental illness treatment or even peer-support counselling remains a major challenge because you are dealing with the careers of pilots and other aviation professionals. It’s easy to look the other way when a team member is showing signs of struggling – not my problem, don’t get involved. And maybe you won’t be scheduled with them for weeks or months, so just get through this flight.
Yet, his (or her) mental struggle is your problem. It’s your passengers’ problem. It's the airline’s problem and the industry’s problem. To use a UPRT analogy, the industry is banking into an unusual attitude and needs to get back to straight and level. Nothing will inhibit the future growth of the airline business like the frustration, and even fear(s), of flying.
So get involved. Be a responsible friend or colleague. Expect a reaction of denial. Or anger. Resistance.
Aviation is, to a certain extent, a technology-driven business. But it is moreso a human-centred endeavour. We have voluntarily agreed to travel in the same direction with 100, 200 or more of our fellow beings. It’s the ultimate ride-share. Can’t we agree to get along for a couple of hours? And if we can’t, should we even be flying together?