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'Air Rage' - The Delta Solution

Kevan James

September 30, 2021.

After getting on board an American Airlines US domestic flight recently, a frustrated passenger found she was unable to cram her somewhat large carry-on bag into the overhead compartment above her seat, and when a flight attendant told her she needed to check the bag in and have it carried in the hold below the cabin, she lost her temper.

Image - Kevan James

“You check it,” the passenger said, flinging the bag at flight attendant Teddy Andrews, who said the carry-on hit him. “Airline rage has been around for a long time but as of late it has gotten out of hand,” he added. Andrews reported the angry flier to his bosses in order to have her banned from flying American Airlines again, a decision that all carriers can make and without government oversight.

Airlines based in the USA are looking at new efforts to address air rage by having each carrier share its lists of passengers banned from flying with them because of unruly behaviour. By doing so, airlines may prevent passengers who are banned from one airline from flying on another; but the idea has already drawn opposition and concerns that sharing the lists could violate privacy and US antitrust rules.

A training exercise using actors (Green Light Limited)

The debate over the lists of banned fliers began when executives at Delta Air Lines issued a memo to employees last week, saying the company is willing to share its list of more than 1,600 banned passengers with other carriers and calling on other airlines to do the same.

“A list of banned customers doesn’t work as well if that customer can fly with another airline,” Kristen Manion Taylor, Delta’s senior vice president of flight services, said in the memo.

Delta’s idea of a shared list of banned passengers would be separate from the US government's 'no fly' list that attempts to keep people with suspected links to terrorism from boarding aircraft.

The proposal came the same week a congressional committee held a hearing on the increasing problem of air rage triggered primarily by too much alcohol among passengers and a mandate that everyone onboard wear masks. At the hearing, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, submitted several recommendations to address the growing hostility on board airliners, including the creation of a centralised list of banned passengers that airlines can access.

“Flight attendants and gate agents have experienced incidents of verbal abuse, yelling and swearing in response to instructions, shoving, kicking seats, biting, punching, throwing trash at workers,” she said.

Southwest Airlines is not in favour of shared lists

Tyler McDowell

Southwest Airlines has already indicated that it would be against the idea of sharing lists and in a statement, the airline said it will continue to meet with other airlines and federal agencies to discuss ways to “prevent unruly situations and conflict escalation,” and added “we do not publicly disclose the details of our restricted travel list.” Representatives for the carrier declined to elaborate. Other US carriers are not publicly commenting on the idea, while industry experts say the proposal raises privacy, antitrust and operational hurdles.

Since January, airlines have reported more than 4,000 cases of unruly passengers to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with more than 3,000 related to passengers violating mask rules. A survey of flight attendants this summer found that 85% had had at least one run-in with an unruly passenger and 17% said they were involved in an incident that turned physical.

Flight attendants and industry experts say current rules enforcing the wearing of masks onboard flights and in airport terminals are behind much of the anger among many passengers. Excessive drinking, before and during flights, is also leading to dangerous behaviour. The rise in cases of air rage prompted the FAA in January to adopt a 'zero tolerance' policy that replaces warnings and counselling requirements with stiff civil fines for misbehaving passengers. So far this year, the FAA has imposed more than $1 million in fines against passengers who have argued with, used bad language towards, threatened or assaulted flight attendants or other passengers.

American has not said how many people are on its banned list

Kevan James

Both United and American declined to comment on Delta’s list-sharing proposal, referring questions to Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the nation’s airlines. The group said in a statement that it has encouraged federal agencies to prosecute passengers who are disruptive or unruly on airline services, but would not address the idea of sharing banned-passenger lists.

United has banned some 730 passengers for refusing to abide by the mask mandate and American would not disclose how many passengers are banned from flying on its aircraft. In a statement, Alaska Airlines said it is working with Airlines for America and the FAA to improve flight safety. The Seattle-based carrier has more than 870 passengers on its banned list. It also declined to comment on the prospect of sharing this list.

United has banned some 730 people from its flights

Kevan James

Industry commentators say the exchange of banned-passenger lists can be a problem because each airline may have different definitions and thresholds for unacceptable behaviour. “This is the kind of thing that is easy to talk about but difficult to implement,” said Henry Harteveldt, an airline expert and president of Atmosphere Research Group.

US Antitrust laws prohibit airlines from collaborating with competitors on routes, prices and other business strategies, prompting some industry experts to wonder whether sharing passenger names could constitute a violation of these laws.

There are also administrative questions. Before airlines can share their lists of banned passengers, the carriers need to decide who is going to collect and manage the list, added Harteveldt. Also, airlines may be forced to adopt an appeals process so that passengers who believe they have been unjustly banned can make their case to be taken off the list, he said.

Robert Ditchey, an aviation consultant who co-founded America West Airlines, said such lists could cause confusion if the airlines simply share common names such as 'John Smith.' Additional information must be shared to distinguish a banned passenger from someone who has the same or a similar name, he said. “So what else would you need to share?” he asked. “Your frequent flier number? Your email address? Your credit card information?”

Teddy Andrews, the American Airlines flight attendant who also testified before Congress about air rage, said he has submitted the names of several passengers to be banned from his carrier, most often for refusing to wear a mask or for being drunk. The suggestion that airlines share their list of banned passengers makes sense, he said in an interview.

“If you are not agreeing to it, you are saying it’s okay for passengers to act irate on one airline and then [after getting banned] walk down the terminal and get on another airline.”

Like other European carriers, Ryanair has seen incidents of unruly behaviour amongst passengers

Tyler McDowell

On the other side of the Atlantic, Europe's airlines generally don't seem to be suffering from air rage as badly as US carriers are, but there have certainly been incidents, most especially on low-fare airlines.

The rise of the low-fare carrier, and the response by legacy airlines in adjusting their short-haul services to a similar model to remain competitive (and thus also lowering fares) has seen a huge increase in the numbers flying and also thus an increase in people who either won't behave or don't know how to. Airline staff are simply there to cater for their every whim and are not there to - as such people see it - order them around.

Frequent flyer Tyler McDowell (also an occasional contributor to KJM Today) has yet to experience air rage on his forays around Europe or to the USA. "I haven't seen any examples yet," he said. "Although the closest I've experienced was in the terminal at Frankfurt, where a man with an American accent was being questioned by Lufthansa staff and he blew up at them over it"

More recently, there can be little doubt that the enforcement of face coverings has worsened the situation for everybody. Many people find the idea of being cooped up in a narrow tube a little unsettling to begin with, confined closely with a large number of others and little or no control over where they are and what they do. But to do so and have the imposition of wearing a mask over nose and mouth - an alien concept to many people - is even more of an upset. This is even more marked when masks are allowed to be removed in order to eat or drink, especially since oft-given advice when travelling by air is to drink plenty of fluids.

Face coverings obviously cannot be worn while eating or drinking

Singapore Airlines

This of course leads to the question of what one should drink. Despite the advice, alcohol is not a good idea, either before flying or while in the air. The effects of alcoholic beverages kick in much quicker while flying than on the ground but many nervous fliers drink to try and settle themselves before boarding and can be worse for it before take off.

Drinking too much alcohol is a notable feature of life in Britain, indeed the UK is notorious for it, especially in European holiday hot spots so it is little wonder that there have been problems on aircraft.

With air travel beginning to show signs of recovery the problem is not going to go away and it may well be that the idea of government-led intervention and subsequently some kind of international list of passengers banned from travelling due to their behaviour may well gain traction, and the UK already has such a list of people, banned from travelling outside the country to to their drunken violence at football matches in Europe and within the UK.

The simple answer (although far from being an easy one) is that people need to learn - or in some cases, re-learn - respect, consideration and plain old-fashioned good manners, not only for others but also for themselves.

© Kevan James, 2021

Additional contributions by © Hugo Martin, Los Angeles Times, 2021

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