Fully vaccinated, Paul Feldman said he felt safe as he walked onto his American Airlines flight on Feb. 22 in Florida prepared to accompany a friend to a funeral.
Feldman, 71, never imagined he’d hobble off the plane at his layover in North Carolina with a torn ACL and medial meniscus tear caused, he said, when another passenger pushed him as he was trying to exit the aircraft.
“He body slammed me and, actually, he said there was no way I was going to get off that plane before him, and he was right,” Feldman said.
Feldman said the situation escalated as his friend tried to move through the aisle to get her bag so that they could deplane and make their connecting flight to South Carolina. Feldman, who didn’t have carry-on luggage, stayed in the row.
He said the man in the row in front of them got angry. When Feldman’s row was called to exit, the man wouldn’t let him by.
Then, the man reportedly pushed him.
“My knee buckled, and he heard it,” Feldman said. “He grabbed his luggage and ran off the plane.”
FAA tries to curtail unruly passengers
Feldman isn’t the only passenger who has found himself in a heated encounter on an aircraft with another passenger as of late.
The internet has plenty of videos of confrontations in airports and on airlines, from arguments over who can deplane first, to passengers arguing over mask wearing to confrontations between passengers and staff in the terminal over mask wearing.
Noting a “disturbing increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior,” on Jan. 13, the Federal Aviation Administration adopted a zero-tolerance policy for those who “interfere with, physically assault, or threaten to physically assault aircraft crew or anyone else on an aircraft.” It increased fines to $35,000 and imprisonment.
Ian Gregor, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said as of early April, airlines had reported more than 1,300 unruly passenger cases to the FAA since Feb. 1. The agency has not yet released the number of enforcement cases for 2021.
Gregor said it is hard to say how that compares to years past as in previous years the agency “always tracked enforcement cases, not reports that don’t result in enforcement cases.”
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Is a stressful passenger experience increasing tension?
Erin Bowen, a professor of psychology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, studies passenger behavior on planes.
She said in her view, incidents in the cabin can’t be isolated from a stressful passenger experience that starts at the airport.
“It’s the whole system that sort of contributes and builds up stresses and frustrations,” Bowen said.
Travelers often navigate ticket kiosks, tagging their luggage and finding their way to their gate on their own. They go through the stress of security checkpoints and then are loaded into a small cabin with shrinking seats and legroom in addition to limited amenities.
“It’s very dehumanizing,” she said.
Alcohol, she said, can also escalate the situation.
“You’ve got stressed, anxious people who are trying to stifle their anxiety with alcohol which, of course, impacts you faster when you’re up at altitude on a plane,” she said.
Is the pandemic causing more fights?
In the past year, alcohol service on most airlines has been on hold due to the pandemic. Instead, the pandemic itself has added to the stress of flying.
Bowen said it has changed people’s sense of necessary personal space and heightened their perception of safety, adding to the anxiety of traveling.
“Now you add on top of that where you’re leaning into my space and you’re not wearing a mask and you could give me this terrifying illness,” Bowen said.
She said there’s also been some preliminary research showing how, as people have started to enter public settings after a year of isolation, we’ve forgotten some basic interaction skills in social settings and that could contribute to confrontations.
Preventing confrontations on planes
Bowen said in the environment, it’s unlikely confrontation will work well to deescalate the situation. While it might be tempting to record, Bowen said that can also escalate the situation further.
She urged passengers to control what they can in the situation by taking a deep breath and concentrating on their own calm reaction.
“We do have a tendency to want to assume the worst about people especially when we get on planes,” she said.
“Just think: I don’t know where they’re going. This person has been horrid to me, you know, maybe they’re on their way to a funeral. Maybe they just lost their job. Just trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes surprisingly goes a long way toward not having a fight with them.”
Feldman frustrated with response
Feldman said he never found out the name of the man that attacked him. Flight attendants, he said, made a copy of his boarding pass.
Airport staff in North Carolina transported him to his next flight in a wheelchair.
After he returned from the funeral and saw his doctor, he followed up with the airline. Feldman said American declined to give him the other passenger’s name. Without it, he said he was unable to file a police report.
The airline offered him a $500 voucher for a future flight, which Feldman said he declined.
The Arizona Republic, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, contacted American Airlines for comment on the situation.
The airline stated “the safety and comfort of our customers and team members are our top priority. American requires customers to comply with the airline’s rules for safety, as outlined in its conditions of carriage, which includes appropriate and respectful behavior with other customers.”
“We have been in contact with Mr. Feldmen regarding his experience,” Derek Walls, spokesman for American Airlines, confirmed though he did not provide additional details about how it responded.
It’s all very frustrating to Feldman, who said he now needs surgery for his injuries. He said his last interaction with a representative from American was a letter the airline sent him in March stating it was not responsible for his injury.
“Who knew this would happen to me,” Feldman said.
You can connect with Arizona Republic Consumer Travel Reporter Melissa Yeager through email at email@example.com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.