From mid-flight fistfights to flight attendants using duct tape to restrain unruly passengers, the country saw a record number of air-rage incidents in 2021 with airlines reporting more than 5,000 such cases — and counting. As a Spotlight on America investigation found, some of those passengers are easily making their way back onto airplanes.
Among those cases reported to the Federal Aviation Administration, nearly 75% involved passengers upset about face mask requirements.
“It’s not just the masking. It’s where our society has come ... There’s been at least two cases where passengers and crew have had to duct tape people to a seat,” retired FAA officer Brian Sullivan, who spent his career testing airport security, told Spotlight on America. "We had a recent incident in Boston, out of Logan, JetBlue, where an individual went nuts and went nuts on the crew.”
That passenger allegedly choked a flight attendant and attempted to gain entry to the cockpit.
Just a few months before the 9/11 attacks, Sullivan sent a memo to his FAA superiors warning them that security at major American airports was too lax. Now, 20 years later, Sullivan says the current surge in air-rage incidents is exposing more major security flaws across the nation.
One flaw allows violent passengers back in the air. There is no law or rule that requires airlines to share lists of banned travelers with other airlines. For example, if a passenger is on one airline's banned-passenger list, they are still able to fly again on another airline.
"If American [Airlines is] not sharing that with Delta and Alaska and United, it’s no good," Sullivan said.
Delta recently revealed to other airlines more than 1,600 people on its list of banned flyers. The airline called on other major carriers to start sharing their lists, too, so unruly passengers are kept out of the air.
The surge in air-rage incidents caught the attention of Congress.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents attendants from 17 airlines, told Congress in October that 85% of all flight attendants reported dealing with an unruly passenger in 2021.
17% say those encounters got physical.
"There have been gate agents who have been punched in the face repeatedly, and no action has been taken," Nelson told Spotlight on America. "Law enforcement doesn’t come fast enough."
Despite thousands of incidents, Spotlight on America learned less than 5% of unruly passengers have faced enforcement from the FAA, and just 37 cases have been sent to the FBI for criminal charges.
“Finally, for the first time, we’re getting some federal leadership that says this is now going to be an FBI issue," said air travel expert Andrew Thomas, a professor at the University of Akron. "The FBI, for a long time, didn’t want to be involved in these cases. They didn’t think that these were worthy of them."
Thomas says another major issue is different airports, states and cities all have different face mask requirements.
“There’s a lot of people getting on with the mask here or here, and the flight attendant having to say, 'Sir, please put your mask on.' You can just feel that tension.”
The Department of Transportation says a national no-fly list for problem passengers could be coming soon.