By Brian New

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Leisure air travel may be back to pre-pandemic levels, but it’s not back to normal.

Since the return of air travel, the FAA said there’s been an unprecedented level tension between passengers and flight crews.

Viral videos taken on commercial flights show passengers screaming, physical fights, and other unruly behavior.

Since the start of the year the FAA said there’s been more than 3,420 reports of “unruly” passengers.

More than 555 of those escalated to the point where a federal investigation was needed.

That’s more investigation initiated for ‘unruly’ behavior than the FAA reported in all of 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016 – combined.

Flight attendants often receive the brunt of the verbal and physical abuse.

Earlier this summer, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant suffered a broken nose and lost two teeth after being punched by a passenger on a flight headed to San Diego.

“There is a palpable fear for our flight attendants when they come to work,” said Paul Hartshorn Jr., an American Airlines flight attendant who also works for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

Most of the unruly behavior reports stem from passengers not wanting to comply with the federal mask mandate, according to the FAA.

“Flight attendants are not making these rules but, unfortunately, they’re the ones that at the end of the day that have to enforce them,” Hartshorn said.

This month, the TSA offered self-defense training in several cities, including Dallas, for flight crews.

The TSA has offered these classes in the past but government officials noted interest in the training has been higher this time.

Meanwhile, the FAA launched a campaign aimed at getting its message across of zero tolerance for bad behavior on flights.

The campaign includes a video with kids explaining how to act on planes along with memes for social media.

 

FAA Facebook meme

The agency is also issuing fines up to $35,000 for unruly passengers.

A man on Southwest Airlines plane at Love Field was recently hit with a $21,000 fine, plus criminal charges, after he allegedly threw a mask at a flight attendant then punched a customer service supervisor, according to the FAA.

“Folks who get into physical conflict confrontations, obviously, need to be held accountable,” said U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, (R) Texas. “But, you can understand the frustration that normal passengers have.”

Van Duyne is one of several republican lawmakers who supported bills to end the mask mandate on planes immediately.

In May, the CDC said fully vaccinated Americans no longer needed to wear a mask indoors, with planes being one of few exceptions.

“I think it’s very confusing,” Van Duyne said. “I think it’s very arbitrary and very frustrating for passengers when they can go to a restaurant right before they get to the airport and, all of a sudden, now we have to put on our masks.”

As it currently stands, the federal mask mandate on planes is set to expire September 13.

However, that does not necessarily mean after September 13 passengers won’t still have to wear a mask when they fly.

“I know for a fact that airlines are discussing what to do once this mask mandate is lifted,” said Matthew Klint, the author of the travel website, Live and Let’s Fly. “There’s a big back and forth going on right now between management and unions.”

Klint said he believes when the federal mandate ends, some airlines will no longer require masks but some likely still will.

“There’s the positive in that that creates different markets for different consumers,” Klint explained. “The downside, of course, is that there’s no sort of baseline expectation and that could well lead to more conflict.”

So while tensions are high now, hold on. The bumpy ride may be far from over.

List of FAA fines for ‘unruly’ passengers 2021 incidents: