Mask flouting no joke at 30,000 feet, aviation industry says
The minute flight attendants ask airplane passengers to put up their tray tables, there's typically a quick response.
But when it comes to COVID-19 mask requirements, compliance is not always automatic.
The Federal Aviation Administration reports a "disturbing increase" this year in travelers disrupting flights with threats or violence that partly stem from their refusal to wear masks.
The agency has received more than 1,300 unruly-passenger reports from airlines since February and is cracking down on serious offenders, who could face fines of up to $35,000 and possible imprisonment.
"It's a federal mandate," commercial pilot Dennis Tajer of Arlington Heights said.
"A passenger not wearing a mask is like a passenger deciding to get up and walk around the airplane when the seat belt sign is on prior to landing. It's called noncompliance."
The occurrences are rare, but airlines take them seriously and are instituting their own consequences by banning passengers who flout face coverings.
Chicago's United Airlines has "banned about 750 passengers since our policy was put in place last year," spokeswoman Leslie Scott said. "The incidents themselves have occurred at all stages of the travel journey."
The penalty, however, is not for life; it's for the term that the mask policy is in place, she noted.
Egregious occurrences include a man on a Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Sacramento on Jan. 26 who refused to wear a mask, became combative and "used offensive language" to flight attendants, the FAA said. As the passenger walked with his luggage toward the exit door, he called each of the two flight attendants "pathetic" and hit one with his bags.
On Wednesday, the FAA proposed a fine of $16,500.
Another dangerous situation involved a flyer on a JetBlue Airlines plane from the Dominican Republic to New York City Feb. 7. She rejected requests to don a mask, threw an empty alcohol bottle that almost hit another passenger, tossed food into the air, swore at crew members and assaulted two flight attendants. The plane returned to the Dominican Republic as a result, and the FAA is proposing a $32,750 fine.
JetBlue spokesman Derek Dombrowski said the carrier is grateful to its crews for enforcing mask rules and to customers "who tell us how important this requirement is toward keeping one another healthy and safe."
So far, 140 JetBlue customers have been banned from flying because of mask noncompliance.
The Daily Herald contacted a number of major airlines, and not all provided data on banned travelers. However, Spirit Airlines reported 604 passengers had lost flight privileges since the pandemic began.
Of the 1,300 unruly passenger reports, the FAA has identified 260 potential violations to date and has begun 20 enforcement cases with more expected.
"When a passenger is noncompliant, it takes the attention of the flight attendants," said Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association representing American Airlines pilots. "And if it continues, it takes the attention of the pilots.
"If there's 170 people on an airplane and one or two decide to be noncompliant, we owe it to those 169 or 168 to ensure we keep them safe. There's no time for debate when you're in a metal tube at 30,000 feet."
Before takeoff, Tajer makes an in-person announcement wearing his mask and reminding passengers of the federal mandate. It must resonate because he has yet to fly any scofflaws, Tajer said.
"Frankly, you don't want to meet me at the end of the flight with authorities because you didn't wear your mask. I'd rather meet you at the beginning of the flight with a smile under my mask and an agreement that we're in this together."
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