What The Frontier Airlines Miami Incident Shows About Travel In 2021

It has been quite a day on social media with a video circulating of an unruly passenger on Frontier Airlines getting taped to a seat after an inflight altercation with the crew. The passenger is shown on video to have gotten verbally irate, assaulted the flight crew, and then was restrained in a seat for the remainder of the flight. Upon arrival in Miami, he was met with security personnel who took him into custody. Incidents like these are becoming more frequent, and here is what that says about travel in 2021.

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What happened on Frontier was certainly jarring, but it is, unfortunately, not unique for 2021. Photo: Getty Images

Unruly passenger reports remain high

On Tuesday, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released numbers of unruly passenger reports since January 1st. In total, the agency has received 3,715 reports of unruly passengers, with 2,729 of those involving passengers refusing to wear a mask. 2021 is certainly going to be a record in the FAA’s history of unruly passenger reports.

In the US, it seems more and more common that unruly passengers are growing verbally irate, assaulting flight attendants or other passengers, and forcing aircraft diversions or security to meet the plane on arrival.

In this incident, the Frontier passenger allegedly assaulted two female flight attendants and was caught on video assaulting another crew member. The video of the incident is linked below. Warning, there is graphic language.

Frontier Airlines released the following statement:

“During a flight from Philadelphia to Miami on July 31, a passenger made inappropriate physical contact with two flight attendants and subsequently physically assaulted another flight attendant. As a result, the passenger needed to be restrained until the flight landed in Miami and law enforcement arrived. Frontier Airlines maintains the utmost value, respect, concern and support for all of our flight attendants, including those who were assaulted on this flight.

“We are supporting the needs of these team members and are working with law enforcement to fully support the prosecution of the passenger involved. The inflight crew members’ current paid leave status is in line with an event of this nature pending an investigation.”

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The flight continued to Miami, where law enforcement personnel met the plane on arrival. Photo: Getty Images

The question of what to do with unruly passengers

In the case of an inflight disruption from an unruly passenger, there are fewer tools airline employees have at their disposal than when on the ground. There are police officers, security personnel, multiple gate agents, and just physically more space to restrain overly aggressive and belligerent passengers at an airport. In the air, there are, at minimum, one flight attendant per 50 passengers to handle any inflight disruptions, plus the potential for an air marshal and off-duty security personnel traveling as paying customers who may be able to help. However, the last two are not guaranteed onboard an aircraft.

Taping a passenger to a seat is relatively common as a procedure for handling unruly customers onboard an aircraft. Multiple airlines across the world utilize this method to keep physically aggressive passengers restrained while onboard an aircraft.

The industry has grappled for years with what to do about unruly passengers. Some are just people who are frustrated and acting out. Others have more nefarious intentions, and it can be difficult to judge which passengers fall into which category. Safety comes first, so airlines and crew will tend to resort to prioritizing physical safety. At the same time, the pilots will work with air traffic control and airline operations to determine the best course of action (to divert or to continue) and get law enforcement personnel to meet the aircraft on arrival to deal with the passenger.

Post-arrival, however, there are several tools that regulators and law enforcement agencies are taking. Most customers will face some sort of police action and may end up spending time in jail, be required to make a court appearance, or pay a hefty fine levied by the FAA, or a combination of all of them. Airlines will also generally ban those passengers from flying with them.

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Law enforcement will meet an aircraft on arrival if there are reports of an unruly passenger. Photo: Getty Images]

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A (very, very very, very small) minority of customers

According to data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the passenger in the video above flew on July 31st, along with 2,007,412 other passengers across the United States. A vast majority of those customers complied with airline policies and federal law. A vast majority of those customers did not assault flight attendants, and a vast majority of flights went off without an incident.

Airline executives have echoed this sentiment in recent weeks. It has been happening onboard at an increasing rate, but it still involves a very small minority of customers. Nevertheless, airlines are taking measures.

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Millions of passengers take to the skies every day. Photo: Getty Images

A multi-faceted issue

In 2020, most of the reports of unruly passengers came down to those who refused to wear a mask or face covering onboard an aircraft in line with airline policies. In 2021, that is now a federal mandate. However, not everyone has clearly sought to link the issues to masks. CEO of Delta, Ed Bastian, stated the following on the carrier’s second-quarter earnings call:

“I know some people want to relate it to having to wear masks. I’m sure that’s a piece of it. I don’t know that’s the main piece. I think the bigger challenge is that we’ve got a lot of individuals that have been impacted; their emotional wellbeing had been impacted during the pandemic. And as people are coming back out into society you see challenges in all walks of life, not just in our industry. You see it happening in other places as well in society.”

Another big question has been the role of alcohol in unruly passenger incidents. As concessions and restaurants have reopened at airports, people are consuming alcohol again, and most airlines have also brought back adult beverages onboard. Some passengers try to consume their own alcohol onboard, though this is strictly against FAA regulations, and passengers will get in trouble.

Flight attendants will stop serving alcohol to customers who are aggressive or overly intoxicated and may pose a safety risk onboard the aircraft. Crews are trained to handle these situations to keep them from escalating.

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While many will enjoy a drink inflight, keep an eye out on how much you are consuming. Photo: Delta Air Lines

How you can avoid ending up in this situation

While you cannot control others’ behavior, you can control your own. First and foremost, pack extra kindness and patience with you. This is not an easy time for flight attendants, gate agents, security screeners, and just about anyone working in the industry. After spending the last year worried about job security, the industry is now facing a labor shortage, and new hires are not coming on fast enough to relieve some of the pressure on workers.

This also applies to your other passengers. Some people are getting onboard an aircraft for the first time since early 2020 or 2019. Those customers may not remember to take off their belt at TSA or may not remember they need to present their ID to check a bag. Some passengers have become new moms, others have lost loved ones. Everyone is coming to the airport in an entirely different situation.

One thing you have in common with everyone else standing in line is that you all are waiting to be helped. Photo: Getty Images

Second, comply with the federal mask mandate. Whether you believe in it or not, you are required to wear an approved face covering while onboard an aircraft. The place for voicing your concerns and protesting against that mandate is not onboard an aircraft, where you could risk significant fines, cause a diversion, or find yourself on a banned passengers list. Flight attendants do not control this policy. Please do not take your frustrations out on them. When you check-in for a flight or book a ticket with a carrier, you agree to wear a face covering for the duration of your travels.

Third, be prepared. Summertime weather is wreaking havoc at airports across the US, and this can cause delays or cancellations. Start thinking ahead about alternate flight options or moving your vacation around if you get an alert about severe weather and receive a travel waiver. Cool options like RadarBox.com can give you information about your inbound aircraft, delays impacting your arrival or departure airports, and an overview of general air traffic in a region, so you can gain some insight before the airline posts information about whether or not your flight will be delayed.

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A little preparation can go a long way. Photo: Getty Images

Prepare to be hungry. Pack some extra snacks with you in case there are long lines at concessions or if your airline is not serving your favorite food items. You may end up having a tight connection that limits your ability to grab a bite to eat.

Flying in 2021 is a very different experience. Planes are full again. Food and beverage are starting to come back, though not everywhere and not uniformly. Airport concessions may be understaffed or closed. Long lines stemming from shortages in ground staff are also common.

If you are taking part in the magic of flight, hold onto the excitement of visiting a new destination, seeing old friends or family, or any other positive reason for your travels. Staying positive and keeping an upbeat attitude is one way to temper against the varied frustrations of flying in 2021.

Have you flown in 2021? What do you make of the Frontier incident? Let us know in the comments!