Close to 2 million passengers pass through airport security every day and flight attendants on U.S. airlines face greater numbers of unruly pandemic weary passengers.
Flight attendants "are thinking about not having gotten sleep, how long the days are, how crowded the flights are, how screwed up the operation is, and whether or not this is the day they might get punched in the face," Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told Yahoo Finance Live.
A recent survey of 5,000 flight attendants found 85% had to deal with misbehaving passengers and one in five reported, "experiencing a physical incident."
"It's the most hostile environment that we've ever faced. And I want to be really clear, it's a small group of people, but they have been emboldened, and they have become more frequent than ever," Nelson said.
Second quarter earnings reports from airlines like Delta Air Lines (DAL), Southwest Airlines (LUV) and United Airlines (UAL) all referred to a post COVID-19 rebound in leisure travel demand which in some cases is greater than 2019. "No one thought it would come slamming back like this," Nelson said.
But the airlines, which have added capacity to keep up with demand, are scrambling to hire employees. Delta needs 5,000 workers, United plans to hire 25,000 by 2026 and Southwest is offering bonuses worth $300 to employees who recruit new staff.
"We're going to work with minimum staffing, we're going to work with longer days, typically shorter nights, because there are fewer flights to schedule us in an efficient way," Nelson pointed out.
'Everyone's sick and tired of it'
The Federal Aviation Administration says fines against unruly passengers now exceed $1 million. According to an agency press release the FAA, "has received approximately 3,889 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, including about 2,867 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal face mask mandate," since the start of the year.
"Everyone's sick and tired of it," said Nelson, referring to the pandemic. "Passengers don't like to wear this mask for a couple hours while they're on a flight. Think about the flight attendants [who] go to work every day wearing it for 14 and 15 hours." She pointed out that attendants have to enforce safety regulations but some passengers won't comply.
Passengers aboard a Frontier Airlines flight recently helped an attendant duct tape a man to his seat after he groped two flight attendants. After the incident, United Airlines issued a memo to its staff to avoid using restraining tape but Nelson called the memo an added insult. While "restraining tape is the only restraint on some other airlines, United decided to take the restraining tape off of the planes in 2014," she said.
"I think it was incredibly disrespectful of United Airlines to send out that memo," since it hasn't been on United planes for seven years, said Nelson. "It's my understanding that it was written by marketing, trying to get a leg up against their competitors. And I think it's really backfired on them because the public is saying, listen, we don't want to take any tools away from flight attendants if it's going to keep the rest of us safe."
Nelson said airline employees have been on a "real roller coaster" during the highs and lows of the pandemic. Adding to the rough ride is the current surge in new COVID-19 infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) informed airlines the mandatory mask mandate will be extended past the Sept. 13 expiration through Jan. 18. Nelson supports the extension.
"The way to end it is to get everyone vaccinated. And in the meantime, stop the spread by wearing those masks when we you're in a confined space with other people," she said.