Bad behavior won’t fly: Flight attendants learn to fight back in self-defense classes

HOUSTON – We are just three months into 2022 and already the Federal Aviation Administration has received hundreds of reports of passengers acting aggressively in the air. Last year, 2021 was a record-setting year for the number of incidents involving disruptive passengers on planes. Because of this, flight attendants are enrolling in the Transportation Security Administration’s Crew Member Self-Defense training course.

Close to 6,000 (5,981) reports of insubordinate passengers were filed by the FAA in 2021. Of those, nearly 72% (4,290) were mask-related incidents.

This year, (to date) there have been more than 600 reports of unruly passengers, with the majority of them close to 400 incidents, being mask-related.

The number of travelers passing through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints is climbing, in some instances more than doubling last year’s same-day numbers, descending after a record-year the number of incidents involving unruly passengers.

Grounded: Bad behavior. Because of an increase in violent and dangerous conduct while in the air, a zero-tolerance policy is in place, which means the FAA will pursue immediate legal enforcement against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with the airline crew members.

Byron Irby is the Supervisory Air Marshal in charge of the Dallas Field Office for Federal Air Marshal’s Service.

“They don’t deserve to be assaulted in any way, shape, or form. They are there to do a job, for the safety of the flight and people aboard the flight,” Irby said.

In a government office building near Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Irby explained on top of federal criminal prosecution and hefty fines, the disobedient passenger risks meeting their match because more and more airline crew members are learning how to defend themselves.

“The crew member self-defense classes are taught by federal air marshal instructors who specifically deal with incidents on the aircraft,” explained Irby.

A Senior Federal Air Marshal with Federal Air Marshals Service (FAMS) instructor said, “We talk about de-escalation techniques and self-defense. We are not teaching them to be UFC fighters, we are training them to protect themselves and to recruit other people to help, passengers and other crew members to help get them out of the situation. The other takeaway was mindset-- make sure they know they are capable of handling these situations and not be a victim. You have a lot of passengers that haven’t flown before, people are a lot more on edge, the mask has a lot to do with it, but life in general with COVID. People are a lot more stressed.”

Learning how to deal with that stress is Jennifer Murphey, an American Airlines flight attendant of more than eight years.

“The mask issue is a big deal. We feel we are essentially babysitting adults. You are told four or five times when you purchase a ticket, you’re going to have to wear it, so just wear it and don’t try to make our lives more difficult,” Jennifer Murphey explained. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it scares me because as a flight attendant we are trained, that is our actual main job, safety and security. I just hope it helps the rest of the world realizes we are not just there to serve you a Coke and something to eat, we are actually there to make sure you get from point a to point b with no injuries, so that’s why I am here taking this self-defense class.”

Also in the course is American Airlines flight attendant Lloyd McMaster.

“Petty, disruptive behavior,” explained McMaster. “Not so much afraid, but just sort of aware. Being ready for what could happen, if I do, hopefully, I never do, but if I have to get into an altercation in tight quarters, just how limited that space is, we can barely walk down the aisle as is without bumping into somebody. Having to get into a fight with somebody, you have to be narrow and take control of the space.”

As for travelers in a threatening situation-- “A passenger sees something and a flight attendant calls for help, go help them out. This does not mean you’re going to join in with punching, kicking, or choking someone out, but just try to separate the people from fighting or if someone is on a FA, try to pull that person off and try to secure them,” explained the FAMS instructor.

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