By Kathleen Bangs
TSA Responds to Record Violent Passenger-Caused Flight Disruptions
When on Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists took chillingly easy command of four American commercial airliners, the tragedies ushered in a new era of how airline flight crews trained to deal with hijackers, and compliance was no longer the mandate. Now in the skies of 2021, as a reeling air travel industry bounces back from the global Covid-19 pandemic, violent passengers in alarmingly rising numbers are the latest threat to air safety.
At Los Angeles International Airport last Friday, as a United Express flight operated by SkyWest pushed back from the gate, a passenger unsuccessfully attempted to get through the cockpit door. He then opened a cabin service door, slid down the automatically inflated emergency escape slide, and injured himself yet luckily no one else in the bizarre incident. But that transgression seems mild compared with recent acts of onboard violence such as the Southwest Airlines Flight 700 where a female passenger punched and bloodied a flight attendant hard enough to dislodge two of her teeth.
Or the Delta flight where an off-duty helmet-clad flight attendant — well briefed on what security tactics his coworkers were trained to take — commandeered the PA and made ominous warnings before trying to breach the cockpit door. The captain made his own call over the PA, asking for able-bodied men to spring into action and assist the flight attendants who were trying to subdue the perpetrator on the floor as their jet diverted for landing.
A surging epidemic of inflight disruptions threatens air carrier cabin security for passengers and crew. With onboard Federal Air Marshalls in limited supply, more and more passengers have been tapped to jump in and help flight attendants get unruly passengers under control, including deploying wrist and ankle restraints.
Sara Nelson, labor leader and president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the largest flight attendant union with 50,000 members across more than a dozen airlines said, “We’ve never before seen aggression and violence on our planes like we have in the past five months. Even if it doesn’t rise to the level of a physical altercation, just the constant bickering and name-calling and disrespect wears away at people.”
“It’s out of control. It’s really coming to the point where we have to defend ourselves,” said Paul Hartshorn, spokesman for American Airline’s 30,000-member Association of Professional Flight Attendants.
To help combat the onboard mayhem involving over 3,000 disruptive passenger incidents so far this year, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced on June 24 a restart of Crew Member Self-Defense (CMSD) training, a program paused last year due to Covid-19 restrictions. During the training, flight crew members learn to identify and deter potential threats, and if needed, apply self-defense techniques against attackers. The voluntary four-hour training is free, offered at 24 locations around the United State, and open to all active US flight crew members.
Gordon Armstrong, TSA Crew Member Self-Defense Program Manager, said that in the past training could run as long as three days, but that time commitment made it difficult to enroll enough flight crews. Now, with a pared-down four-hour course, Armstrong said enrollment will be in the thousands versus 700 in some previous years. Union leader Nelson thinks the voluntary TSA self-defense course for flight attendants should be part of their paid, mandatory training provided by airlines.
TSA’s Armstrong was hesitant to theorize on why the number of unruly passengers is skyrocketing, but said, “It probably has to do with some people’s misplaced sense of entitlement. Gate agents, pilots, flight attendants. Everyone has a job to do, and it shouldn’t be made more difficult by disruptive passengers. I’m just glad to be able to get the ball rolling and get the training back.”
Beyond flight attendants, Armstrong said the TSA program is also available to any public-facing airline employees from pilots to ramp agents.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, a former Delta pilot, has issued warnings that if passengers disrupt a flight, they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, including fines, lifetime airline bans, and potential jail time. Airlines for America, an organization representing most large U.S. carriers, along with many industry labor unions, has asked US Attorney General Merrick Garland to direct the Justice Department to “commit to the full and public prosecution of onboard acts of violence.” And t the urging of flight attendant unions, United Airlines has scaled back inflight alcohol service, while Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have delayed plans to resume alcohol sales.
In a bygone air travel era, just a threat to summon the captain could quiet down even the most disruptive passenger, but those days are long gone, with pilots since 9/11 essentially bolted into the cockpit, behind a door manufactured to be impenetrable. One Tampa-based air carrier pilot, wishing to remain anonymous, said that mentally assessing his cabin crew, wondering how they’ll handle a possible violent passenger interaction, is now part of his personal preflight task checklist.
“Through this training program, TSA’s Federal Air Marshals are able to impart their specialized expertise in defending against and de-escalating an attack while in an aircraft environment,” said Darby LaJoye, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the TSA Administrator. “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.”
The upside for the flying public — which has been on full display this year — is when unruly travelers become combative, there’s a strong chance surrounding passengers will help the trained flight attendants to wrestle disruptions back under control. But while that’s a start to addressing the escalating problem of inflight violence, it’s almost certainly not a long-term solution.