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Violent airline passengers shouldn’t be allowed to fly

Airline workers work hard to protect us. They deserve a safe work environment

Pilots, flight attendants and flight crew work hard to protect us. Violence is not what they signed up for. When it comes to violent behavior, if you try you will not fly.

Last week, an unruly passenger allegedly punched a flight attendant repeatedly and opened an emergency exit door. These dangerous incidents have become all too frequent. In March, an airline passenger allegedly attempted to stab a flight attendant with a broken metal spoon, tampered with an exit door 45 minutes before landing, and threatened to kill everyone onboard. In November, another passenger allegedly charged a flight attendant with a box cutter blade. Just weeks before that, yet another passenger allegedly assaulted two flight attendants after taking a hallucinogen. 

The sky is not a playground, and airline workers are not passengers’ punching bags.

These incidents just scratch the surface of what’s become a national crisis of unruly passengers, and they are completely unacceptable. In 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration disclosed 2,455 “unruly passenger reports” and levied $8.4 million in fines. More than 250 such passengers have been referred to the FBI between late 2021 and April 2023.

The sky is not a playground, and airline workers are not passengers’ punching bags. Flight attendants, pilots and other essential airline workers are our first responders in the sky and critical to ensuring passenger safety and security. Unruly passenger events divert attention away from this primary job function and add unnecessary risk into the national airspace. 

Aviation workers should never have to seek protection from abusive passengers. The traveling public and the aviation workforce deserve safe and secure air passenger service. Yet, these incidents continue to occur at alarming rates.

That’s why we, Rep. Eric Swalwell and the Transport Workers Union (TWU), are working together to pass the Protection from Abusive Passengers Act. This legislation — reintroduced in March by Rep. Swalwell, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and Sen. Jack Reed — would prohibit violent passengers from flying after being convicted of assaulting aviation workers. 

The legislation is simple: A passenger who assaults a pilot, flight attendant or flight crew will not fly.

Airline workers work hard to protect us. They deserve a safe work environment so they can focus on aviation safety and security and respond to medical emergencies on the ground or in the air. 

The legislation is simple: A passenger who assaults a pilot, flight attendant or flight crew will not fly.

Despite flight attendants’ essential and potentially dangerous job to serve and protect passengers, existing measures to defend airline workers from unruly passengers are often ineffective, and passengers who assault workers frequently face no repercussions. Currently, airlines are left to maintain their own no-fly lists, allowing unruly passengers to be let onto a different airline’s flight immediately after assaulting airline workers.

The Protection from Abusive Passengers Act would prohibit abusive passengers from boarding commercial aircraft by placing them on a national do-not-fly list if they are convicted of a criminal conviction or FAA enforcement penalty. A Transportation Security Administration-maintained list would ensure transparency and due process, as well as providing a mechanism for redress and removal from the list. A TSA list will ensure essential airline personnel are able to continue to perform their jobs to the best of their ability, without fear of encountering known abusers onboard a commercial flight.

To encourage support for the Protection from Abusive Passengers Act, the TWU launched a national campaign last year that has brought widespread attention to the ongoing issue of assault against airline workers. The campaign, Assault Won’t Fly, has helped airline workers share their stories of assault and advocate for better worker protections from the airlines themselves. Such protections include self-defense training courses that replicate real-life situations and assaults by unruly passengers. 

As air travel returns to pre-pandemic levels, the eagerness to ensure flight safety and aircraft security should be at the forefront. Flight safety protocols, common travel norms, flight delays or cancellations should never result in an assault of an airline employee or passenger.

For air carriers, this means listening to their front-line employees — flight attendants, pilots, customer service and gate agents — by developing policies and procedures that take their perspectives into account. For airline passengers, it means showing respect, patience and kindness at the airport and onboard the aircraft. For elected officials, it means standing up for our essential aviation workers and passing the Protection from Abusive Passengers Act. 

We are all in this together, and we all want to get to our final destination. It’s past time we give our thanks and support to the airline workers who help us all get to our destination safely.