Mask rules leading cause of air rage incidents in 2021, Transport Canada data suggest

TORONTO — Many refused to wear a mask, others were intoxicated or caught vaping. Another passenger ran onto a runway, some threatened fellow passengers and crew, and a handful were taken into police custody. One reportedly pretended to sneeze on another passenger. Some flights had to return to the gate, while others had to be diverted.

These are just some of the unruly behaviours reported on flights within Canada, according to a CTVNews.ca analysis of 2021 incident reports. There has been a clear increase in confrontations since air travel resumed according to one union representative, but these incidents are likely underreported.

Airlines, the global trade magazine for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), recently reported that the rate of unruly passenger incidents doubled in 2020 and was a trend that continued in 2021. One airline member reported more than 1,000 incidents in a single week, IATA said.

Dramatic incidents of air rage captured on video have made headlines this year, with the most high-profile incidents — like the man who was duct-taped to his seat over the summer — taking place on U.S. flights. 

In-flight mask requirements due to pandemic health and safety protocols have been a particularly contentious flashpoint. 

In the U.S., more than 5,400 reports of unruly passengers have been made as of November 30, with nearly 4,000 of them involving masks, according to data put out by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority. In addition, 1,017 investigations were launched so far this year, compared to the 182 initiated on average each year between 1995 and 2020.

But Canada too has experienced its share of tense confrontations in the air, many of them involving masks.

From January until October, the latest month for which data is available, Transport Canada’s monthly aviation security report on interim orders related to COVID-19 recorded 1,093 incidents of passengers refusing to comply with mask-wearing during a flight.

Over the summer when air travel picked up, close to 200 incidents were reported each month in July and August — roughly four times more than in April and May and double that of June. The number of reports tapered off in the fall, but remained at levels far above the first half of the year. Eighty-three passengers had to disembark the plane and at least 21 administrative monetary penalties were handed out, the security report shows.

Still, not every mask incident escalates to the criteria of an unruly passenger, Transport Canada spokesperson Sau Sau Liu told CTVNews.ca.

As of December 6, 2021, WestJet has issued travel bans to 118 customers this year for refusing to comply with mask requirements, a spokesperson told CTVNews.ca. The bans last for 12 months.

WestJet has a three-step, zero-tolerance mask policy for each flight that begins with cabin crew asking a passenger to wear their mask. Unco-operative passengers are then given a warning that masks are required and compliance is necessary. The final warning involves giving a passenger notice that non-compliance will result in being notified that they will be placed on a no-fly list for 12 months.

“With cases of non-compliance representing less than 0.02 per cent of all our guests flown, WestJetters have been working diligently to keep our operation safe throughout the pandemic,” WestJet media relations adviserMadison Kruger said via email.

“A lot of travellers are out of travel practice and haven’t been on an airplane in more than 19 months, which we believe speaks more to the challenges and small percentage of unruly situations we are encountering, not unlike other industries.”

VAPING AND SHOVING CABIN CREW

A search of Transport Canada’s Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System (CADORS) found 54 incidents reports involving unruly passengers in Canadian airspace this year, and another 10 involving Canadian airlines or flights that were departing or landing in Canada, but were outside Canadian airspace.

Transport Canada cautions that while it aims to ensure CADORS data is accurate, the information should be treated as preliminary and subject to change.

CTVNews.ca examined each report and found that the RCMP or local police were reportedly called in to meet the passengers in the vast majority of cases. In some cases, authorities made arrests or had to board the plane.

More than half of the incidents occurred on “approach” or “descent,” while more than a dozen occurred while the plane was parked or taxiing. In each case where the plane was taxiing, the aircraft was forced to return to the gate where the disruptive passenger was offloaded.

“You always want to take care of problems before the plane’s in the air. That’s part of the training, right?’ said Troy Winters, the senior health and safety officer at CUPE, in a phone interview. Canada’s largest union represents more than 15,000 flight attendants across nine Canadian airlines.

“Because once you’re in the air it gets very complicated, but it’s also extremely pricey. If once you take off you have to turn around and land that plane or land at a different airport — nobody wants to do that.”

That’s what happened to a flight in September out of the Washington-Dulles Airport for Frankfurt, Germany: a disruptive passenger forced the Airbus A330 to divert to Montreal, where police and ambulance were reportedly notified.

Flights from or to Calgary International Airport saw the most number of incidents, followed by those arriving or departing from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

In at least 25 reports, refusal to wear a mask was specifically noted as the reason a passenger (or a family of passengers in at least one case) was being disruptive. In one report, a traveller leaving from Prince George, B.C. was described as rude to check-in agents, shoved flight attendants to access the flight deck, refused to mask, and sat in the first row, which was not their assigned seat. The aircraft, which was headed to Vancouver, was still parked. The RCMP was called in when the passenger refused to leave due to their behaviour, according to the report.

PRETENDING TO SNEEZE

In other reports, masks were not mentioned, but implied as the passengers were vaping on board and ignoring the flight attendants, for example.

In one case, a passenger on flight from Calgary to Halifax was reported as likely intoxicated, not wearing a mask, and pretending to sneeze on other passengers. The individual also touched a cabin crew member and threatened another passenger, the report said, with crew labelling the offender as “level 3 unruly.” The passenger was handcuffed and taken into custody on arrival.

Level 3 is defined by Transport Canada as “an incident where the safety of passengers or crew members is seriously threatened.” Only major security incidents such as credible threats of death in an attempt to gain control of the aircraft, sabotaging or attempting to sabotage an aircraft ranks higher.

Not all events involve masking, however.

SHAKING AND BANGING THE SEAT

One passenger on a flight from Edmonton to Calgary “began shaking and banging the seat in front of them, and causing a disturbance,” according to one report. Staff called the police when the passenger did not stop, and the aircraft had to return to the gate where the passenger was asked to leave. Another incident involved two travellers who were escorted off their flight by police after an undeclared air pellet gun was found in their checked luggage. In remote northern Quebec, a passenger being escorted by two agents reportedly escaped and ran onto the runway.

In a flight from Vancouver to Toronto, a traveller tried to open the flight deck door “while screaming that the aircraft was going to crash,” another report said. The tense situation was eventually defused with the help of other passengers and “no restraints were used.”

In that particular incident, the lead flight attendant was also assaulted, which is not quite as rare as one might expect, Winters says. Hitting and spitting are the most common physical aggressions he hears about from airline staff, but not everything gets formally reported due to the complex and detailed forms that need to be filled out, according to Winters.

“There’s a lot of paperwork that happens when that kind of incident takes place. So we know for 100 per cent sure that there’s a massive underreporting,” he said.

CUMULATIVE STRESS FOR FLIGHT CREW

Dealing with unruly passengers over masks has been an added layer of stress for airline staff, many of whom were already under enormous pressure from pandemic lay-offs. But the last thing companies and their employees want are outbreaks of COVID-19 on flights that could ground the industry again.

“They didn’t sign up to be the mask police…They weren’t sitting around saying, ‘oh, I can’t wait to get a job where I can just yell at people to put their masks on,’” said Winters.

“That’s the thing that really wears down and really stresses them out. Because every time you start that conversation, you’re bracing yourself for, ‘how are they going to respond?’”

Winters said flight attendants are required to enforce the rules not only for their own safety, but importantly, for the safety of those on the aircraft. Even if they are vaccinated, they may be immunocompromised and not even know it, he added. 

But the cumulative stress from repeated confrontations can add up.

“Even when there is no incident — every time you have to walk down the aisle … you always have to be on guard and always have to be worried about things that you normally wouldn’t be,” he said.

“I’m not going to say it’s every flight, but I’m going to say it’s definitely by far the majority of flights where they have to have a conversation at least once.”

The increase in incidents have also coincided with the increase in vaccinations, according to Winters, adding that he has never witnessed passengers becoming belligerent over being asked to wear their seatbelt or put their chair back up.

“We’re super stoked that everybody on the plane is vaccinated, but it’s had this unfortunate effect of, ‘Well, I’m vaccinated, I don’t need to wear this mask anymore,’” he said.

“We’re as sick of this pandemic as everyone else. And we just ask folks to just be respectful and just treat everybody nice…at least be generally respectful and we’ll all get through this. The end is coming. We’ve just got to all get there together.”

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