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Violence in the skies and the psychological toll of the pandemic on travelers

Posted at 7:36 PM, May 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-31 19:36:44-04

(WSYM) — As Americans reflect on this Memorial Day, many are also taking to the skies.

More than 1.6 million Americans were screened Sunday alone at airport checkpoints. It's one of the busiest stretches for travel since the pandemic began, and comes at a time when hostility in the air is palpable and U.S. officials are urging calm.

TSA Screening on Memorial Day Weekend

Violent scenes have played out on U.S. domestic flights as mask policies change on the ground but not in the sky. Two teeth were knocked out of the mouth of a Southwest flight attendant. The passenger was arrested and charged. However, the type of aggression is not isolated.

There has been an uptick in ugly confrontations as air travel sees a dramatic increase.

TSA has screened more than 7 million people since Thursday, which is a significant jump from the same weekend last year.

"I haven't been home in two years," said Nicole Paternosto, a Memorial weekend traveler. "So whatever I got to do to get home, I'm going to do to get home.”

U.S. officials are warning there will be consequences for violent behavior on flights.

"Violence against a flight attendant on a flight is a federal offense," said Alejandro Mayorkas, Homeland Security secretary.

Airlines have banned hundreds of passengers since the pandemic began, for non-compliance of COVID policies. Multiple Detroit flights have been impacted. Last summer, a flight preparing to take off for Atlanta turned around on the tarmac. Delta removed two passengers who refused to mask up. And last fall, another Delta flight was delayed for the same reason.

The psychological toll of the pandemic is likely a factor.

“This has been a trauma for just about everybody," said Jeffrey Guina, chief medical officer at Easterseals Michigan. "This pandemic has been like a war for people. It’s been scary and frightening.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg

Mask requirements are lifting across the country with more than half of Americans receiving at least one dose of the vaccine, and daily COVID cases plummeting nearly 70 percent in the past weeks. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg explained why masks are still required for federal travel.

“Part of it has to do with the unique conditions of the physical space, part of it has to do with the conditions of it being a workplace and folks who really don’t have a choice of being there the way it is in some other cases," Buttigieg said.

The FAA is now imposing penalties as high as $15,000 against passengers for violations. Secretary Buttigieg says it comes down to safety and respect.

“A lot of Americans will be traveling for the first time. It also means, for the first time in a while, maybe encountering flight crews and flight attendants and other transportation workers," Buttigieg said. "Remember what they have been through. They’ve been on the front lines of this pandemic; their jobs have been in doubt."

"They’re doing their job. They are following regulations and they are there to keep you safe. It is absolutely unacceptable to ever mistreat a transportation worker."

As of now, the federal transportation mask policy is in effect until Sept. 13.