Flight attendants fear about combating passengers over masks, union president says

Flight attendants enforcing mask mandates onboard flights are worried about physical attacks from travelers, Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told CNBC’s Squawk Box on Monday.

Nelson’s comments came just days after the Transportation Security Administration announced it would double fines for passengers who refuse to comply with the federal mask mandate for air travel. The union president said that the TSA’s updated policy could help address more mask-related conflicts in the airport, thereby reducing issues for flight attendants to handle on the plane.

“We’re concerned every single day when we go to work and put that uniform on, are we the target and going to be punched in the face today,” Nelson said.

Flight attendants have long been tasked with policing safety rules and regulations in-flight, Nelson said, but they’ve experienced an uptick in conflicts stemming from mask mandates. The Federal Aviation Administration said on July 7 that mask requirements comprised 75% of its unruly passenger complaints since the start of 2021.

Under the TSA’s revised fee structure for those who disobey mask mandates, first offenders will face a $500 fine. The agency will levy a $3,000 penalty on anyone who violates the mandate more than once.

A flight attendant with United Airlines, takes part in the Crew Member Self-Defense Training Program in Chantilly, Va. In response to the uptick in flight incidents, US Air Marshals are now offering self-defense classes for flight attendants.

Pete Marovich | The Washington Post | Getty Images

When asked whether she would support a vaccine requirement for airline staff and passengers, Nelson said that flight attendants “overwhelmingly” support vaccine mandates. Nelson added that any vaccine mandate would have to include the union’s collaboration and include the necessary religious and medical exemptions outlined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines mandated vaccines for their employees in August, while Frontier Airlines and Alaska Airlines have implemented Covid testing requirements for all unvaccinated personnel. Delta Air Lines has raised health insurance premiums by $200 and implemented weekly Covid testing for unvaccinated employees, and both Alaska Air and American Airlines said they would stop paying unvaccinated workers during their Covid quarantines.

“Everyone has got to be vaccinated and that’s the only way that we’re going to end this pandemic,” Nelson said. “That’s the only way we’re going to get back to the freedoms that we enjoyed before it started.”  

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