As a Southwest Airlines flight flew over California last spring, a passenger onboard the aircraft got more than a little turbulent.
The passenger started drinking their own alcohol, which is against federal law, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. When a flight attendant told the passenger to stop, that passenger sexually assaulted the attendant. Then, as the flight began its descent into San Diego, the passenger went to the bathroom and smoked weed.
Now, these allegations, released Monday, mean that the passenger is facing a nearly $41,000 fine from the FAA.
It’s only the latest in a growing string of examples of what the FAA describes as “unruly passenger” behavior. As of last week, the FAA in 2021 has received more than 5,200 reports of unruly passengers and has initiated 991 investigations. In 2019, the FAA opened just 146 investigations, CNN reported.
Last year, the FAA opened just 183 investigations, according to 19th News. That number is likely disproportionately high, the outlet noted, given that air travel all but ceased thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Flight attendants, who are overwhelmingly female, have been open about passengers’ dangerous behavior. In a 2018 survey, almost 70 percent of flight attendants said they’d been sexually harassed during their careers, according to a survey by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA).
“I come in expecting to get pushback. I come in expecting to have a passenger that could potentially get violent,” one attendant for a major U.S. airline told CNN this year.
In October, a flight from New York to California had to divert to Colorado after a passenger punched a female flight attendant—twice, a local CBS outlet reported. The flight attendant had previously bumped into the passenger.
The attack left her with broken bones in her nose and face, a union representative told the outlet.
“She had blood splattered on the outside of her mask,” one witness recalled.
Of those 5,200-plus reports of unruly passenger behavior, around 3,800 were related to mask-wearing. One passenger on a March flight from Florida to Michigan is now facing a $24,000 fine after he had to be reminded, multiple times, to keep his mask on, the FAA alleged.
“This is America. This is free speech. What don’t you understand?” the passenger shouted, according to the FAA, which also alleged that the passenger appeared to be intoxicated.