The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) most recent data shows cases of violent, unruly passengers increasing aboard flights. Airlines reported more than 5,600 cases of unruly passengers this year through Dec. 14 and more than 4,000 cases of "mask-related incidents."
"There are more than 5,000 incidents already that have been violent in nature on planes, and so many of them are tied to alcohol," Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told Yahoo Finance. Markey is on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation which recently held a hearing on "Oversight of the U.S. Airline Industry."
It was intended to explore the ways U.S. airlines spent $54 billion in taxpayer funds Congress lent and granted to the carriers to avoid layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic. But much of the testimony from airline CEOs and others included the government-mandated mask policy and updates on the incidents of unruly passengers.
"The problem with aviation right now is the violence towards flight attendants and other aviation workers that has remained constant at record high levels during the biggest crisis our nation has faced in 100 years," testified Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO.
Markey said, "Given the level of volatility in the skies that we're seeing with passengers who are almost ideologically in opposition to any mask mandate, or any control of how people are traveling, leads to inevitably, it's sad to say, a ban on alcohol as well, until this whole situation is put under control."
'Alcohol is absolutely a contributor'
Nelson began sounding the alarm last summer when she told National Public Radio (NPR), "Alcohol is absolutely a contributor. So I don't want to say that alcohol is always the cause for these events, but alcohol is the biggest contributor to them."
Nelson called on the committee to ban take out drinks from airport bars and delivery of open container alcohol at airline gates. She also wants the Department of Transportation (DOT) to require airport bars to limit customers to purchasing one alcoholic beverage at a time.
But Markey, who links the escalating bad behavior to alcohol consumption wants to go further. He called it an epidemic of violent behavior on planes and said he's open to banning alcohol altogether. "It's unacceptable behavior in the skies, dangerous behavior in the skies that right now is still out of control. And we have to do whatever it takes in order to make those skies more safe."
The FAA's Reauthorization Act allows a fine of up to $37,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases. But the agency is only investigating 1,030 incidents of bad behavior and has brought just 315 cases against misbehaving passengers.
"Unfortunately passions are intensifying rather than abating and more and more people just feel that it's their constitutional right not to have to wear a mask on a plane," said Markey, adding that the DOT may have to act. "If that opposition is then fueled by alcohol on that plane, it creates a dangerous situation, not just for the flight attendants, but for the passengers on that plane as well."
Adam Shapiro is co-anchor of Yahoo Finance Live. Follow him on Twitter @Ajshaps