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Fist fights at 36,000 ft

Fist fights at 36,000 ft


There’s been an increase in brawls and bad behaviour on planes. What’s fuelling the fury?


Claudia Williams: Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker – from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today…something interesting is happening on airplanes in the United States.

There’s been a huge spike in stuff like this…

[Sound of passenger brawl aboard a flight, October 2020]

Fights; confrontations between passengers; confrontations between passengers and cabin crew. Something strange has happened to the atmosphere on planes, and the authorities in the US are worried about it. 

A lot of people here are looking forward to taking a holiday abroad this year. 

So what’s causing this bad behaviour, and is this what we can expect when we start flying again?


It’s been a pretty terrible year to be a flight attendant.

When Covid hit, planes were grounded worldwide – and the whole travel industry ground to a halt.

“The initial coronavirus outbreak caused a massive drop in air travel inside of China between January and February As the virus has spread, both vacationers and business travellers have curbed their plans. And on March 11 2020, President Trump announced travel from parts of Europe to the US would be halted for 30 days that later expanded to include the UK and Ireland. Airlines around the world scrambled to find a way to survive without passengers.”

CNBC report on Covid and airlines

As the financial losses racked up for the airlines, their cabin crews were the first in line for layoffs and furlough. 

That’s what happened to Brittany Riley…

She’s been a flight attendant for nine years and her husband is one too. They work for United Airlines, and their three kids loved seeing their mum and dad heading to work in their smart blue uniforms…

But during the pandemic, all that came to a shuddering stop. 

And having two flight attendants in the household was no fun at all. There was no work for either of them. 

They were among the 32,000 flight attendants put on furlough by American and United airlines…and it was tough for them, financially and emotionally: 

“We were facing a lot of scary decisions, we moved in with family members, we unfortunately had to pull from our 401ks and took all the savings that we had just to survive, it was a really scary time for us.”

Brittany Riley, speaking on NBC news in March

Finally, things started to look up. Air travel picked up and after months off work Brittany Riley was back flying again in February this year. 

But, actually taking a flight in a Covid world is no picnic either…

The threat of infection makes Brittany Riley’s job much, much harder.

“A lot of sanitising, a lot of triple double checking what you’re doing, changing gloves, making sure you’re washing your hands. I try and make sure if I do I need a drink of water I just do that dip and sip thing, you know you  pull down the mask and take a sip quick and replace it.”

Brittany Riley, speaking on NBC news in March

All those challenges are difficult enough, but flight attendants like her have been bearing the brunt of passengers’ frustrations too. 

It’s compulsory to wear a mask on a plane under US law. For the safety of all passengers – and the crew – it’s essential. 

But some travellers just really don’t want to wear masks. Some complain that they’re too hot, or that they can’t breathe easily. 

Others take a more militant stance on masks: they think that being made to wear one encroaches on their freedoms.

And people can get really aggressive when they’re asked to put one on. 

“If we don’t stand up it’s only going to get worse.”

Anti-mask woman aboard a flight from Charlotte to Washington DC, January 2021

So flight attendants are having to contend with anti-maskers AND they’re having to deal with passengers who are worried that they’re not doing enough to keep travellers safe.

Now if you put a bunch of frustrated, worried, people in an enclosed space…then you’ve got a recipe for disaster…


[Sound of passenger brawl aboard flight from Phoenix, Arizona]

Spats between passengers, fist fights mid air, abuse hurled at cabin crew, people hauled off planes by police: flight attendants have seen it all in the past few months.

The Federal Aviation Administration – the FAA – is the government body that regulates the airline industry in the US, and they’ve seen a massive surge in reports about disruptive passengers:

“Now the FAA reports unruly passenger behaviour has skyrocketed this year. From 150 cases in a typical year, to 1300 reported cases in just four months.”

CNBC report, 5 May 2021

Flight attendants don’t just have to stand back and take this bad behaviour.

The FAA is treating complaints about passengers incredibly seriously. 

They’ve said they’d even consider jail time for the worst offenders – and they’ve already issued hefty fines for passengers who’ve disrupted flights. 

Some are facing penalties of up to $70,000 dollars

There’s good reason to take these incidents seriously, because flight attendants are frontline workers as much as bus drivers and cashiers… and people refusing to wear their masks puts them at serious risk. 

In the US, around 3,500 thousand flight attendants have caught Covid since the start of the pandemic – and around 20 have died. 

Brittany Riley wants passengers to understand that, at the end of the day, this isn’t about politics, it’s about public health:

“I feel like a lot of people don’t understand that this goes beyond a political idea. This goes beyond what an airline is saying or what it’s not. This is a federal law and we’re doing it to protect ourselves and to protect you.”

Brittany Riley, speaking on NBC news in March

The hope is that this uptick in bad behaviour will be a passing thing. 

After a year of stress and isolation, perhaps we’ve forgotten some of our social norms…

But right now, we have to get used to the idea that we’re living with Covid, and that means there are still rules we have to follow to keep ourselves – and everyone else – safe: social distancing, washing your hands and wearing your mask. 

Whether you’re in the terminal – or cruising at 36,000 feet – it all makes a big difference to the spread of the virus. 

Today’s story was written by Ella Hill and produced by Imy Harper