As the coronavirus pandemic recedes, a new outbreak begins: a marked uptick of uncooperative and sometimes violent behavior by airline passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration told the Washington Post last week that even with air travel down, it has received almost 3,000 reports of unruly passengers since the beginning of the year. Roughly 2,200 of those involved passengers who refused to comply with the federal mandate to wear a face covering.
"Based on our experience, we can say with confidence that the number of reports we've received during the past several months are [sic] significantly higher than the numbers we've seen in the past," FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said in an email to the Post.
Those reported numbers, however, are undoubtedly grossly underestimated. On Southwest Airlines alone, there were 477 cases of passenger misconduct between April 8 and May 15, according to Lyn Montgomery, the president of the union for the airline's flight attendants. Such problems are not new, of course. The International Air Transport Association has reported that it received reports of more than 66,000 incidents between 2007 and 2017.
It's difficult to keep psychotics and sociopaths off airplanes, so such occurrences are inevitable, and not every flight has trained, armed air marshals aboard. Occasionally, passengers need to help. In late May on a Southwest flight, a passenger assaulted a flight attendant, leaving the crew member with facial injuries and the loss of two teeth.
Earlier this month on a Delta Airlines flight, a man rushed to the front of the aircraft, banged on the door to the flight deck and repeatedly yelled: "We need to land this plane!" He was subdued by a flight attendant and passengers, and the flight from Los Angeles to Nashville was diverted to Albuquerque.
Should stopping such people be considered "vigilantism"—a term derived from San Francisco's Committee of Vigilance, formed by prominent citizens in 1851 to combat organized crime—a term that conjures up visions of mob violence and lynching? Whatever we call it, few likely would question that under extreme circumstances, it still has a place. The Southwest and Delta incidents are examples, but the exemplar, of course, is that of the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 fighting hijackers and causing the plane to crash in western Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.
There have been many other incidents in which the actions of passengers, individually or working together, averted danger during commercial flights.
"Shoe-bomber" Richard Reid unsuccessfully attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes and was subdued by a flight attendant and a passenger; on a London to Washington, D.C. flight, an apparently psychotic woman became unruly and had to be subdued and handcuffed by other passengers; a Nigerian terrorist tried to ignite an incendiary device as his flight was preparing to land in Detroit; and a flight attendant and two passengers intervened as a Yemeni national, shouting "Allāhu Akbar" ("God is Great"), attempted to break into the cockpit of a Chicago to San Francisco flight. In 2018, an agitated passenger on a St. Croix to Miami flight became combative after being denied more beer, scuffled with his seatmate, an off-duty policeman, and was arrested by the FBI after the plane landed.
For the millions of us who will again resume flying regularly, these sorts of incidents bring up the questions of when passengers should intervene, and what they should do.
Tommy Hamilton, SWAT team commander for the police force at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, who has worked closely with air marshals, cautions against a rush to vigilantism and urges reliance on the professionals. "Federal air marshals have credentials and will identify themselves as soon as practical," he said. "It will be easy to see who they are. They will not identify themselves until after someone has identified themselves as a terrorist-hijacker."
But if no air marshals are aboard (and currently they are assigned to most international flights but only a small percentage of domestic flights), flight attendants and passengers are the first line of defense. Passengers should obey the directions of the flight crew, but they should be prepared, mentally and physically, to act. Like a basketball player getting ready for a jump ball, or a tennis player awaiting a serve, every able-bodied passenger needs to be ready to move, and to act aggressively, not tentatively.
Experts feel that only rarely will terrorists be able to get firearms or explosives on a plane, and having to rely on "softer" weapons puts them at a disadvantage when confronted by scores of passengers, who have at hand plenty of potential improvised weapons: a hard kick in the knee (easier to administer and more likely to succeed than in the groin, according to law enforcement officials); an elbow in the face or ribs; any sharp object in the eyes; a soda can torn in half, which yields a knife-like edge; a computer cord or belt used as a garrote; an oxygen canister (in one or more of the overhead bins) or metal coffee pot or wine bottle used as a club. (Go for the bridge of the nose or the temple, and swing for the fences: Remember that you're dealing with a would-be mass murderer.)
Just as we need to be prepared for other low-probability but serious threats such as muggers or shooters in public places, when we fly it's important to maintain situational awareness and to have a plan.
Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was a Research Associate at the NIH and the founding director of the U.S. FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Find Henry on Twitter @henryimiller.