High-stress flying environment mixed with pandemic causes explosion of unruly passengers at Salt Lake airport

Salt Lake City International Airport sees more disturbances caused by passengers as travel restrictions lift during the pandemic.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Travelers pass through Salt Lake City International Airport Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

On New Year’s Eve, Salt Lake City International Airport travelers witnessed just one example of an increasingly common event — an unruly passenger disrupted a flight boarding.

A 30-year-old woman allegedly disrupted a flight that was set to depart, leading the airline to remove her and revoke her flying privileges, according to court documents. The airline refunded her ticket, but the woman would not leave the gate area.

When responding police officers couldn’t coax her to walk away, they arrested her, forcing her hands behind her back while she resisted, officers wrote in a report of the incident. Video taken by nearby travelers shows the woman trying to get away from police, yelling and using slurs.

The woman was arrested for disorderly conduct, interfering with police and assault on an officer — she allegedly kicked an officer. She was booked into Salt Lake County Jail but released without charges.

This was one of the more unusual incidents at the airport, Salt Lake City Police Department Airport Bureau Capt. Stefhan Bennett said, but it’s far from the only one.

“I find it bizarre that adults act this way,” Bennett said, “and I’ve been a cop for 26 years.”

Disturbances on airlines are such a problem that the Federal Aviation Administration set up a dashboard for data relating to unruly passengers. Nearly 6,000 unruly passengers were reported and more than 4,000 mask-related incidents.

The FAA also began investigations into more than 1,000 incidents in 2021 — 10 times as many as in 2020.

Deterring and prosecuting disruptions

At Salt Lake City Airport alone, more than 15 people were arrested for alleged intoxication in 2021, according to data requested by The Salt Lake Tribune. Police arrested eight people for disorderly conduct and at least one for public urination.

Federal laws prohibit passengers from assaulting, threatening, intimidating or interfering with flight crew members. The FAA can propose fines of up to $37,000 per rule violation, and one incident can result in multiple violations.

The U.S. Department of Justice will also prioritize prosecution of unruly passengers who break the law on airplanes, according to a November memo from Attorney General Merrick Garland.

“Passengers who assault, intimidate, or threaten violence against flight crews and flight attendants do more than harm those employees; they prevent the performance of critical duties that help ensure safe air travel,” Garland wrote. “Similarly, when passengers commit violent acts against other passengers in the close confines of a commercial aircraft, the conduct endangers everyone aboard.”

The Salt Lake City Airport is also looking at prosecution as a way to deal with disruptive and potentially violent travelers, airport spokesperson Nancy Volmer said. The airport will now pay for victims or witnesses of an incident to travel back to Salt Lake City to testify in cases against passengers who caused a disturbance.

Previously, Volmer said, victims would not want to press charges because of the hassle or cost of legal action far from home, and cases would be dropped against disruptive travelers.

Often, victims or witnesses will decline to press charges, police Capt. Bennett said, which puts the police in a “no man’s land” of prosecution.

“We believe it is important that unruly passengers face consequences to prevent that kind of behavior from happening in the future,” Volmer said. “Passengers need to understand that if they act out, especially on an airplane, they face consequences and may not be allowed to board a plane for a very long time.”

Passengers’ emotions boil over

Because traveling in airports and airplanes can be stressful for many people, University of Utah psychology professor CJ Powers said it isn’t surprising that many situations bubble into aggressive confrontations. Add the stress of the pandemic, and people are even more likely to cause a scene.

“When somebody blows up, you can imagine their emotional pot is boiled over,” Powers said. “People, their baseline pot temperature as a population is probably a bit higher. We all need a little bit less trigger to [go off].”

The politicizing of the pandemic also added confrontations between people who wear masks and those who don’t. A person not wearing a mask may see someone telling them to put one on as a representation of power-grabbing politicians that are taking away their liberties. A person asking another to put a mask on may see that person as ignorant and dangerous to be around because of the higher potential to spread disease.

“It isn’t just about putting a piece of cloth on your face,” Powers said. “It’s really about what it represents.”

What to do in a disturbance

If you’re in a Salt Lake City Airport and see a disturbance, talk to an airport or airline employee — they will be able to contact the airport’s control center to send help, Volmer said. If you can’t find an employee, call 911.

Powers has a few tips on how to deal with a confrontation on an airplane, even though you can’t just walk away.

First, when you feel anger bubble up, remember that you’re talking to another person, one who may be just as stressed as you are.

Second, ask yourself whether it’s “worth it” to get in an argument. Most times, he said, it’s not.

Third, try to keep calm when talking to others, even when they aren’t. If you need to ask another person to put on a face mask, don’t be accusatory and instead ask nicely.

“If somebody doesn’t think wearing a mask is a big deal, you’re not going to change their mind,” Powers said. “But you might get someone to put their mask on.”