By  Michael Laris  Jan. 1, 2021 at 3:31 p.m. CST

 As the man returned from the lavatory with a mask dangling from one ear, a flight attendant asked him to put it on properly. “Why? Is something going on that I should know about?” the passenger asked, before grabbing the mask and ripping the string. “Damn it, I guess I can’t wear it now.”

 Other passengers have verbally abused and taunted flight attendants trying to enforce airline mask requirements, treating the potentially lifesaving act as a pandemic game of cat-and-mouse. A loophole allowing the removal of masks while consuming food and beverages is a favorite dodge.

Asked to mask up, one passenger pulled out a large bag of popcorn and nibbled her way through it, kernel by kernel, stymieing the cabin crew for the length of the flight. Others blew off requests by chomping leisurely on apple slices, between occasional coughs, or lifting an empty plastic cup and declaring: “I am drinking!”

 The displays of rule-bucking intransigence are described in more than 150 aviation safety reports filed with the federal government since the start of the pandemic and reviewed by The Washington Post. The reports provide an unguarded accounting of bad behavior by airline customers, something executives hit by a steep drop in travel and billions in pandemic-related losses are loath to share themselves.

Some reports raise safety concerns beyond the risk of coronavirus infection. A flight attendant reported being so busy seeking mask compliance that the employee couldn’t safely reach a seat in time for landing.

One airline captain, distracted by mask concerns, descended to the wrong altitude. The repeated talk of problem passengers in Row 12 led the captain to mistakenly head toward 12,000 feet, not a higher altitude given by air traffic control to keep planes safely apart. The error was caught, and “there was no conflicting traffic,” the captain wrote.

Some passengers are portrayed as oblivious, obstinate, foul-mouthed and, at times, dangerous. One called a flight attendant a “Nazi.” Another “started to rant how the virus is a political hoax and that she doesn’t wear a mask,” a flight attendant reported.


A U.S. Senator Kept Taking Off His Mask On A Delta Flight  —  With millions of passengers ignoring warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to refrain from holiday travel, the reports offer an X-ray into the country’s deeper failures against the coronavirus — and insights into the pitfalls and possibilities facing a new presidential administration.

While the White House under President Trump has, at times, been dismissive or hostile toward masks, President-elect Joe Biden is making a patriotic appeal to “mask up for 100 days,” whatever people’s politics. Biden has said he will sign an order on his first day requiring masks for “interstate travel on planes, trains and buses.” How well those efforts will work remains to be seen.

Experts in psychology and decision-making say hostility toward wearing masks, even within the shared confines of a passenger jet, has been fueled by politicization — but also by skewed incentives and inconsistent messaging.

“The reinforcement principles are backward,” said Paul Slovic, who studies the psychology of risk at the University of Oregon.   The usual signs of danger, and rewards for following potentially bothersome rules, are thrown off by a virus that is spread easily by people who don’t know they have it, Slovic said.

 “You get an immediate benefit for not following the guidelines because you get to do what you want to do,” Slovic said. “And you don’t get punished for doing the wrong thing” because it’s not immediately clear who is being harmed.

 The “squishiness of the requirement” to wear masks on planes also undermines the message that they are critical for public health, Slovic said. In contrast, he cites the rigid clarity of the ban on flying with a firearm. “It’s not, ‘You can carry it as long as you don’t use it,’ ” Slovic said.  But passengers are allowed to drop their masks to snack and sip beverages. When you start opening it up to eating, the whole thing kind of weakens

CDC — 11,000 people have been exposed to the COVID-19 on flights  — Applying mask rules also worsens the already strained position of flight attendants, who are front-line enforcers even as they keep their usual safety responsibilities, experts said.

“Flight attendants are dealing with mask compliance issues on every single flight they work right now,” said Taylor Garland, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, noting that those efforts range from friendly reminders to facing passengers “actively challenging the flight attendants’ authority.”

The Department of Transportation in October rejected a petition to require masks on airplanes, subways and other forms of transportation, with Secretary Elaine Chao’s general counsel saying the department “embraces the notion that there should be no more regulations than necessary.” 

The nation’s aviation regulator has deferred to airlines on masks, with Federal Aviation Administration chief Stephen Dickson telling senators at a June hearing “we do not plan to provide an enforcement specifically on that issue.”

Such matters are more appropriately left to federal health authorities, Dickson argued. “As Secretary Chao has said, we believe that our space is in aviation safety, and their space is in public health,” Dickson said, referring to the CDC and other health officials.

Airline representatives say they take mask usage seriously and the overwhelming majority of customers comply. Some airlines have banned passengers for the length of the pandemic for refusing to mask up. Many have eliminated medical exemptions in their mask requirements.

“Of the hundreds of thousands of passengers who have flown with us, we have only needed to ban about 370 customers for not complying,” United Airlines spokeswoman Leslie Scott said. Delta said its mask-related no-fly list includes about 600 people, despite carrying about 1 million people each week. 

Resistance by some passengers prompted Alaska Airlines to begin issuing yellow cards, akin to the warnings in soccer, to problem passengers.

The initial yellow card said employees would file a report that could result in a passenger being suspended. A later version was more aggressive, saying continued defiance would lead to a flight ban “immediately upon landing,” even if the customer had a connecting flight.

Alaska Airlines has barred 237 passengers since August, and “in more than half of these incidents we also canceled onward or returning travel,” spokeswoman Cailee Olson said.

American Airlines declined to release numbers of banned customers, as did Southwest, which said in a statement it appreciates “the ongoing spirit of cooperation among customers and employees as we collectively take care of each other while striving to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”


Yet A Small, Uncooperative Minority Can Wreak Outsize Havoc  —  The anonymous reports are collected in a National Aeronautics and Space Administration database, part of a program meant to increase aviation safety by encouraging employees to provide candid descriptions of emerging problems without fear of reprisal. Names of people filing the reports, and their airlines, are removed by NASA before they are made available to regulators at the FAA and the public.

NASA analysts screen the reports to weed out irrelevant filings and may call back filers to clarify safety points. But its analysts do not try to verify people’s identities or the accuracy of the reports.

The database shows some fliers treat airline mask requirements as a seemingly asinine rule to evade, akin to sneaking a late look at text messages after phones are supposed to be in airplane mode. Passengers berate flight attendants about their noncompliant cabin mates. Some reports read like cries for help. 

“It all has to stop,” pleaded one flight attendant.  In the future I would like to feel safe while doing my job,” said another.

Among The Incidents:

A Woman Died Of COVID-19 On A Plane… Back In July… Her Fellow Passengers Were Never Notified — Another Heroic Crew Tried To Save her  — Corporation for Spirit Airlines 

Earlier in JULY,  2020, Dallas County announced it learned that over the summer a woman died of COVID-19 died while on a Spirit Airlines flight back to North Texas. 

The Federal Aviation Administration said Spirit Airlines Flight 208, an Airbus A320, was leaving from Las Vegas on July, 24 and headed to Dallas-Fort Worth. The flight was diverted to Albuquerque, NM, due to the passenger's medical issue. 

"They ran to get oxygen and we saw people performing CPR on her," She recalled seeing the woman board the plane and was six rows back. The flight started off normal and less than an hour in the air, Burris woke up to the flight attendants asking on the loudspeaker if there was a doctor on board. 

"Probably about maybe 20 minutes, later 30 minutes later, we heard somebody talking really loud and fall. The stewardess is going back and forth down the aisles. We're trying to figure out what was going on and once they turned the lights on, we saw the lady, laid out on her back in the aisle,"

She recalled two passengers and flight attendants working hard to revive the woman.  "Looked like she (flight attendant) may have been in her 20s, she was so tired from trying to perform CPR, she started sweating, like she was drenched with sweat. And she almost passed out herself because she just would not give up, she really was trying to save this lady. 

The flight landed in New Mexico where paramedics came onboard the flight. She said half an hour later the pilot told them they were waiting on the coroner.   "We realized she had died, she had passed away," she said. 

The Office of the Medical Investigator at the University of New Mexico said 38-year-old Wanda Griffin died of a COVID-19 infection and listed significant contributory conditions such as asthma and morbid obesity. It said Griffin "had been experiencing shortness of breath, which was not relieved by her inhaler medication, and was provided oxygen before she collapsed."

Spirit Airlines stated the following.

"We offer sincere condolences to the family and friends of our Guest who passed away. Our Flight Attendants have in-depth training to respond to medical emergencies and utilize several resources, including communicating with our designated on-call medical professionals on the ground, using onboard medical kits and personal protective equipment, and receiving assistance from credentialed medical personnel traveling on the flight."

There was also concerned for the passengers and flight attendants whom she called heroes who tried to save Griffin's life. 

"They performed CPR no mask. There were no masks. They were in that lady's face and trying to save her with, you know, disregard of their own health because they were, you know, we saw human life. And so the people who actually do CPR I would wonder you know if they were affected by it or infected by it," said Burris.

More Disregard For Safety And Time The Government Stepped In 

  • A woman refused to wear her mask as the plane rolled away from the terminal, saying it made her ill, and the pilot pulled over temporarily to try to avoid returning to the gate. She continued to resist but finally agreed.  “As soon as we took off, she took it off again and kept it off the entire flight,” the flight attendant reported.
  • A man started down the aisle, pausing about 18 inches from a flight attendant.  “He sneezed directly in my face, making no attempt to cover his mouth, pull up his mask or turn towards the row 1 window,” the employee wrote. The flight attendant, who was wearing a face covering, judged the act unintentional and tried to blot away the remnants.
  • A woman propped her foot up and painted her toenails with her mask below her chin, despite several requests to wear it properly.  After another passenger appealed for more to be done, the woman acquiesced, then loudly instructed the flight attendant to “go away!”   After landing, she cut in line to rush off the plane. “Although we understand the importance of wanting to retain customer loyalty, this kind of behavior should not be tolerated for the sake of one over an entire cabin of guests and employees,” the flight attendant wrote.
  • An immunocompromised passenger was furious at the lack of enforcement as another customer snacked incessantly on chocolate. The concerned passenger then removed his mask to complain to the flight attendant.
  • A passenger claimed discrimination, arguing he was singled out for enforcement because of his tattoos. “He said ‘I am complying, #%$^!’ His nostrils were clearly visible,” the flight attendant wrote.
  • A pilot flouted the mask requirement with what appeared to be a passive-aggressive display, donning a flimsy, see-through veil described as useless for containing airborne particles.
  • Flight attendants made an exception and allowed a distraught mother, whose daughter may have had a disability and screamed about the mask requirement, to remain on the plane. They tried cookies, which didn’t help, then moved the family to seats three rows from other passengers, who were supportive.
  • A customer, after earlier warnings, stuck his mask-free head in the aisle during the safety demonstration, “making a total mockery out of me,” a flight attendant wrote. He repeated his taunt when the plane was fourth in line for takeoff. The captain turned around, and the man was taken off the plane.
  • The obstinacy cuts against basic health precautions. Experts in cabin air say masks are critical tools for safety. Cabin air is run through powerful filters, mixed with outside air and recirculated. But it takes several minutes for all air to be vented out of the cabin, giving the coronavirus and other viruses the opportunity to spread