Flight attendants fight back against unruly passengers — in self-defense classes – Orange County Register

A hijacker wielding a knife, a drunk demanding another drink, a man refusing to put on a mask — flight attendants are getting trained on how to handle such scenarios in these times of increasingly aggressive passengers.

“I’m not putting my mask on! I’m not putting it on!” an air marshal, role-playing, yelled as he pushed into a flight attendant at the back of a plane simulator.

During a recent four-hour course, 20 or so flight attendants and a few pilots picked up punching, eye-gouging and other techniques in a nondescript El Segundo office building, not far from Los Angeles International Airport. The Transportation Security Administration has offered such instruction to flight crew members since 2005. These days, the class is as important as ever — with unruly-passenger incidents having skyrocketed.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were nearly eight unruly-passenger incidents last week per every 10,000 flights. While that number dropped from around 12 incidents per week from the beginning of the year, it’s still more than triple the average at the end of 2020.

That translates to around 4,700 reported cases of unruly passengers so far this year. Not surprisingly, the pandemic is playing into the havoc: Of those, 3,400 were mask-related incidents; passengers must wear masks properly while onboard unless they have a TSA exemption.

“It’s programs like these that we can take the skills our federal air marshals have acquired through a rigorous training program, field (and) practical experience,” said Daniel Babor, TSA’s supervisory air marshal in charge, “and share that with our counterparts in industry to strengthen the overall security.

“They’re on the front lines, working amongst passengers every day,” he added, referring to flight crews. “Lately, we’ve all seen the uptick in passengers becoming disruptive, in a lot of cases becoming violent or assaultive. So the purpose of this course is to give them confidence when they’re faced with any scenario.”

In May, a woman on a Southwest flight from Sacramento to San Diego pushed and punched a flight attendant after refusing to fasten her seat belt and stow away her tray table, a Sacramento Bee story reported. The attendant received four stitches and suffered three chipped teeth, according to court documents.

On a Frontier Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Miami, in August, a drunk passenger assaulted three flight attendants, punching one and grabbing the breasts of two others, authorities told The New York Times, adding that the 22-year-old was taped down to his seat and later arrested.

Just last month, a passenger attacked a flight attendant while trying to storm a JetBlue cockpit on a flight from Boston to San Juan, Puerto Rico, according to ABC News, grabbing his tie and collar. Other flight attendants restrained the man, who was eventually kept in check with flex cuffs and seat belt extenders and at one point asked in Spanish and Arabic to be shot, the ABC story says. He was taken into custody in San Juan.

Sarah Shupe, who has been a flight attendant for five years, said the course was more in depth than the training given by airlines. The 36-year-old flew south that morning from Sacramento on her own time to get the added instruction.

“This kind of forces you to look at the job differently,” she said. “It’s nice to get more skills.

“Increasingly, passengers have been more and more noncompliant, it’s harder to get them to do simple things like the masks, or tray tables, or to stow their luggage,” Shupe said. “I can’t even imagine if it were to escalate. That’s why I wanted to take this class, it feels like the environment’s changing.”

During the recent training session, a Thursday, the flight attendants and pilots listened to instructors. They pounded punching bags. Grappled with air marshals. Worked on taking away a knife. Practiced eye-gouging on a human-shaped dummy.

They role-played, with air marshals encouraging and cheering them on.

“You’ve got to strike!”

“Nice.”

“C’mon, strike!”

“Good job.”

The air marshals wanted flight crew members to get in the right mindset, just in case they needed to return there someday to deal with trouble. That mindset is the primary goal for the training, said Carlos, an air marshal (TSA does not want air marshals last names used for security purposes). Physical techniques are of secondary importance.

“It’s very real, there’s an uptick as we all know in assaults and confrontations on board aircraft,” the air marshal said. “We try to make it as real as possible inside here, so they’re not seeing it for the first time on board an aircraft — they’re already somewhat prepared for those confrontational moments.”

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