Unruly airline passenger cases continue to rise

Are the pandemic and mask mandates to blame?
Empty airline seats
Posted at 1:11 PM, Mar 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-29 18:50:51-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Airline travel during the pandemic has created an interesting and often disturbing dynamic between passengers and the flight crew.

More often than not, we are seeing a growing number of flight attendants forced to act as in-flight security guards as unruly passengers express their dismay over mask mandates and other frustrations.


Seminole resident Russell Miller was on the other side of a frustrated passenger on a flight from Tampa, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia on December 23, 2021.

"She punched me in the face, she spit in my face, and she scratched my cheek with her fingernail," Miller said.

Miller is talking about Patricia Cornwall of California. According to court documents and Miller's account, Cornwall was returning to her seat after using the airline's restroom. During that time, in-flight beverage services had begun. A flight attendant asked Cornwall to take a seat until the beverage service was complete, however, Cornwall began to push back verbally. Miller said that's when he intervened and told Cornwall to, "sit down, Karen."

"I was surprised at how far it went. I thought maybe me interjecting myself would convince her to go to the back of the plane and she absolutely refused," Miller said.

After the altercation between Miller and Cornwall, Cornwall was arrested and charged with assault. In a phone conversation with reporter Vanessa Araiza, Cornwall expressed her deep remorse, however, her attorney advised her not to make any further comments as the case remains open.

"COVID has changed people. They are not the same as they are. Their patience is much less," Miller said.

Miller isn't wrong. The statistics back his claims and beliefs. Since the start of the pandemic the Department of Justice has federally charged 46 people for interfering with flight crews and while COVID-19 cases may be declining one could argue that people's tempers are not.

Unruly passenger stats
Unruly passenger stats continue to be on the rise.

In 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration reported approximately 6,000 unruly passenger cases. More than 4,200 of those cases were a result of face masks.

RELATED: Florida, 20 other states sue CDC over federal mask mandate on public transportation

The beginning of 2022 isn't looking any better.

As of March, the FAA has reported close to 1,000 unruly passengers and there are still nine months left in the year.

In July 2021, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson addressed the public and warned people that if they didn't abide by the rules they would be fined heavily.

"The FAA is enforcing a zero-tolerance policy towards passengers who cause disturbances on flights," Dickson said.

They're not kidding. The highest fine they've proposed against a passenger was $52,500 dollars.

In 2021, they proposed $5 million dollars in fines against unruly passengers.

So, the question is were these increased numbers a big result of the mask mandates and the pandemic? That's what one study is searching to find out.

The International Journal of Mental Health Nursing is looking at the behavioral and psychological toll these past two years have taken on society.

As for Miller he's not letting this incident stop him from flying, but he does want it to serve as a reminder for all who take to the skies.

"Check yourself. We're all putting up with exactly the same situations," Miller said.

The TSA has extended mandatory face masks on flights to April 18.

However, in a letter to the White House last week, the organization Airlines for America requested that it be lifted given the reduced number of COVID-19 cases.