Air travel can be difficult in the best of times, with cramped planes, screaming babies, flight delays and short tempers.
Throw in a pandemic, and the anxiety level can rise quickly.
That has led to confrontations with flight attendants and other unruly behavior, including occasional fights that get captured and replayed endlessly on social media.
Airlines have reported about 3,000 cases of disruptive passengers since Jan. 1, according to a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, which began tracking it this year. About 2,300 of those incidents involved passengers who refused to obey the federal requirement to wear a face mask.
Over the past decade, the FAA investigated about 140 cases a year for possible enforcement actions such as fines. This year, it was nearly 400 by late May.
Things have gotten so bad that the airlines and unions for flight attendants and pilots sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department on Monday urging "that more be done to deter egregious behavior."
"The federal government should send a strong and consistent message through criminal enforcement that compliance with federal law and upholding aviation safety are of paramount importance," the letter said, noting that the law calls for up to 20 years imprisonment for passengers who intimidate or interfere with crew members.
Trade group Airlines for America sent a separate letter to the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledging that the "vast majority of passengers" comply with the rules but "unfortunately, we continue to see onboard behavior deteriorating into heinous acts, including assaults, threats and intimidation of crewmembers that directly interfere with the performance of crewmember duties and jeopardize the safety and security of everyone onboard the aircraft."
The FAA announced a "zero-tolerance" policy against disruptive behavior on flights back in January. The agency is attempting to levy fines that can top $30,000 against more than 50 passengers and has identified more than 400 other cases for possible enforcement.
U.S. airlines have banned at least 3,000 passengers since May of last year, and that doesn't include two of the largest, American and Southwest, which decline to provide figures.
Airlines have stripped some customers of frequent-flyer benefits, and in rare cases pilots have made unplanned landings to remove unruly passengers. Pilots and flight attendants now routinely make pre-flight announcements to remind passengers about federal regulations against interfering with crews.
"All of that is helpful, and if we didn't have that I can only imagine how much worse it would be," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, "but this is clearly not taking care of the whole problem. We have to do a lot more. I have never, ever seen an environment like this."
The fear among flight attendants is that things will get worse this summer, as travel continues to increase and planes get more crowded. The airline industry passed a milestone earlier this month when the Transportation Security Administration announced that more than 2 million people streamed through U.S. airport security checkpoints for the first time since early March 2020.
Airline bookings have been picking up since around February, as more Americans were vaccinated against COVID-19. Falling infection rates could, however, make it much harder for flight attendants to enforce the federal mask-wearing rule, which isn't due to expire until mid-September.
Some security experts think lifting the mask requirement will remove a key source of tension — one with political overtones in a politically divided nation. But it could also raise the anxiety of people who worry about sharing space with strangers while we're still in a pandemic.
"People on both sides of the issue are acting badly," Nelson said.