Yes, too often air travelers face long lines, crowded terminals, delayed and cancelled flights, and lost baggage. They get frustrated and perhaps angry. But when those feelings result in a rising occurrence of punching, kicking or spitting on passenger service employees, something is seriously wrong. And now we are taking aim at this disturbing trend.
Across the country, customer service agents have reported violent attacks by passengers ranging from racial slurs to all-out physical assaults. Some have been kneed and punched in the face; some have had to dodge projectile luggage, and others have had their clothes torn. One employee even reported being surrounded by several members of the same family who pushed, shoved and otherwise harassed her until co-workers intervened.
Then there’s the horrific 2014 incident in which a United Airlines customer service representative working at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport was punched, dragged by the hair on the ground and repeatedly kicked in the stomach by an enraged passenger. Multiple witnesses reported that the attack was completely unprovoked, and described how the defenseless customer service agent tried to shield herself from the attacker.
Disturbed yet? It’s about to get worse.
While the passenger in that particular incident was arrested and charged with battery, most perpetrators of these kinds of crimes are rarely held accountable for their actions. In fact, in the vast majority of incidents, violent passengers are allowed to continue on their trips — yes, that includes boarding the same plane on which you and your family are traveling — as though nothing happened.
Currently, federal law that protects flight crews does not apply to customer service representatives. I know what you’re thinking: that makes no sense. Instead of having clarity in our laws, local jurisdictions decide when or if to prosecute perpetrators — or whether to report an incidence in the first place. A simple change to an already existing law, spearheaded by Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), would fix this problem.
Under current federal law it is illegal to interfere with a pilot’s or flight attendant’s ability to perform his or her job. This same statute also creates stricter sentencing guidelines for cases involving assaults on cockpit and cabin crew members. The provision agreed to in the House Aviation Innovation and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act – proposed by Garamendi – aims to expand this law to include customer service representatives who work at airports.
Unfortunately, when the Senate Commerce Committee reported its version of the FAA Reauthorization earlier this month, it did not include this important provision. Rather, the Senate’s version of the bill requires the federal government to conduct a study on the problem. Studies are usually the alternative to actually doing something in Congress. We do not need more federal studies while these airline employees are routinely getting beat up. The Senate study needs to be scrapped and the House language needs to be included in any FAA bill moving forward.
While changing federal law is a good start in curbing this problem, common sense tells us that stricter penalties alone aren’t enough. If and when assaults do occur, customer service representatives need to know they are supported and protected. They need full backing and support from their employers, and clear procedures must to be in place for notifying law enforcement and allowing victims to pursue legal action. Aggressive federal measures combined with an airline management committed to curbing assaults on its own employees will make a difference.
Yes, flying can be stressful. Yes, delays and lost baggage can cause havoc. But there’s never any excuse for verbally or physically unleashing on an airline employee who is just trying to do his or her job. Transportation unions will keep fighting for these measures until lawmakers finally do the right thing and protect airline professionals the same way they would protect their own employees from assaults by visitors and constituents.