Unruly airline passenger complaints dipped after mask rule was voided

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The rate of complaints about badly behaved airline passengers received by the Federal Aviation Administration dropped to its lowest level in more than a year the week after a judge voided the Biden administration’s transportation mask mandate, agency data released this week shows.

There were 1.9 complaints for every 10,000 flights in the week ending April 24, lower than the average level in the last quarter of 2020, which was before the federal mandate and the launch of an FAA crackdown on dangerous behavior.

The FAA did not offer a reason for why the rate of complaints fell. The figures had been declining for weeks — although they crept up in the two weeks before the mandate was voided — and already were well below peak levels seen in early 2021. Still, the latest data could be a sign that lifting the mask mandate has eased tensions on planes, which was a desired outcome for many industry leaders.

The transportation mask mandate was an outlier as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased recommendations about masking as a way of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. The CDC said this week that it still recommends passengers on planes and other forms of public transportation continue to wear masks. But that advice no longer has the force of law, and among airline passengers, at least, it appears few are masking.

At a hearing with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg this week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said that on a recent flight he took from Houston to D.C., he estimated 1 in 10 people wore a face covering. Cruz asked Buttigieg what he planned to do the next time he flies.

“I’m not sure,” Buttigieg said. “It’ll depend on conditions that day. I don’t have a flight today, but next time I do, I’ll think it over.”

TSA stops mask enforcement after federal judge voids mandate

The picture on some transit networks is different than in the skies, according to reports gathered by Transit, an app that tracks public transportation schedules.

In San Francisco, for example, its users reported that most passengers were wearing masks on 80 percent of trips. The figure was 74 percent on Los Angeles buses and 44 percent in New York, but a far lower 5 percent on transit in Utah.

While the mask mandate in no longer in force, the FAA has said it will continue to take a zero-tolerance approach for instances of passengers disrupting flights. In early April, the FAA proposed record fines against two passengers and has called for an upward of $2 million in total fines this year. The agency has credited the policy with helping to bring down the number of conflicts.

Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 50,000 flight attendants at 18 airlines, urged the industry to place more focus on alcohol-related problems and a federal banned flier list.

“The frequency of disruptive and violent passengers is still way higher than pre-pandemic, and there’s still a lot of work to do to stop or mitigate these incidents on planes,” she said.

The mandate had been subject to short-term extensions, even as the airline executives and labor leaders who had been among its strongest supporters called for it to end.

At this week’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Buttigieg told Cruz that the most important thing “is that whether it’s on a flight or a bus or anywhere else, respect is shown to those who wear masks and to those who choose not to.”

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