Why Does American Airlines Have So Many More Passenger Incidents Than Other Carriers?

United Airlines restores liquor sales in coach on flights where it isn’t already offered effective November 15. They emphasize they’ve had fewer inflight incidents than certain other airlines (cough).

On Wednesday’s American Airlines New York JFK – Orange County flight (AA976) a 3-cabin first class pasenger got into an altercation with a flight attendant over a mask. This led to the passenger assaulting the crewmember and the flight diverted to Denver.

One witness claimed the flight attendant had “blood splattered on the outside of her mask” after being struck in the face…”She was bleeding so they took her to the hospital,” another witness told the station. The suspect was seen in an online photo in handcuffs at the Denver airport.

Why is it that so many passenger incidents – this one seemingly worse than most – seem to occur on American Airlines? They’re much larger than Spirit, to be sure, carrying far more passengers. But why do they have more inflight crazy than Delta, United and Southwest? I don’t know. There are several hypotheses I’ve entertained that don’t quite fit perfectly.

  • Seat back video screens are the opium of the masses. American has removed screens, while Delta doubled down on them. But United doesn’t have them consistently across its fleet, though they’re adding them. And Southwest doesn’t have them.

  • Other crew are friendlier, and keep tensions down. To be sure Delta cabin crew are friendlier on average, and Southwest crew seem to be having fun. Perhaps the most famous (biting) incident happened on Southwest, and United flight attendants are almost as much of a mixed bag (some great, some…not) as American’s.

  • Low fares American has carried more passengers and been willing to fill planes at lower fares than their legacy counterparts. Does this attract a ‘Spirit crowd’ more likely to cause problems in the air? A year ago American’s CEO Doug Parker told employees that the people they’ve been flying are “somewhat different from our normal clientele.” Then he backtracks a bit, “we love all our customers of course!”

    Yet the Department of Justice’s theory in suing to stop American and JetBlue from partnering is that American will undermine JetBlue as a low fare carrier. And JetBlue doesn’t seem to have similar levels of crazy.

  • The Miami hub Many incidents seem to center on South Florida, whether Spirit Airlines (Fort Lauderdale) or American (Miami). Every urban legend happens in either Germany or Florida. Could it be the location of their hubs drawing passengers from those regions most likely to cause issues? Except strip out Florida and American still seems to be something of an outlier.

None of these theories quite works, so why is it that American Airlines seems to have an outsized proportion of passengers causing problems on planes?

I’m not sure why American has more, but perhaps the reason United has fewer is that having gone through the David Dao incident their new procedures and trainings better prepared them for the pandemic era.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. My guess based on personal experience is that the AA flight attendants/gate agents are more aggressive in their treatment of passengers than DL and certainly SWA. Can’t comment on Spirit as I would rather walk than fly them. I’m a MM on DL and used to fly AA frequently to the Caribbean. Flying out of or connecting through MIA always seemed to be a frustrating experience and since 9/11 the AA FA’s seemed to always be threatening whenever someone brought up an issue. I saw this too many times. I do everything I can to avoid AA today.

  2. I believe in the “seat back screens are the opium of the masses” theory, personally. As a Delta hub captive, I often see how entranced people can become by just having a random show or movie to watch. FA unions should honestly start lobbying for the installation of seat back screens as a personal safety measure to lull the idiotic masses into complacency.

  3. Seems to be a mixed bag. I think David is right in the AA FAs rarely try to de-escalate the situation and usually seem to double down on escalating it. AA seems to have given their FAs more leverage in escalating. AA is a tale of two cities with FAs. I have had some who are absolutely wonderful and others who not only shouldn’t have a job but are actually just miserable lazy people. AA does a poor job at rewarding good FAs IMO and incentivizes them to do less.

    I also think seat back entertainment and no alcohol play factors. I believe price has nothing to do with it. While any can try to be spirit like. None of the 3 are spirit and AA has had more brawls etc than them.

    I think drunk passengers being aggressively handled, with no entertainment and not being allowed to drink more can all play a factor.

  4. Also as an AA elite one thing I have never understood is the plane can be at 50% capacity 2 hours before boarding but will magically be checked in full or at least near capacity. I have never understood this. Delta, AS if the plane appears empty few hours before it usually always stays that way.

    So I also think being cramped like sardines also doesn’t help.

    Has anyone else noticed this with AA?

  5. The tickets are too cheap !!!! That and being the worlds largest carrier has more exposure to stories.

  6. Tim – serious question but is AA cheaper than spirit? Spirit is the bottom feeder and while AA has tried to be price competitive, although I would argue they all have been, I don’t think they are cheaper than spirit. So has to be more than price. AA from my home airport is always priced equally with delta and maybe a few bucks more than United. In my experience it’s not like AA is 50 bucks and others are 200. Maybe they are in some markets?

  7. AA fails at all levels of customer service – most notably airport gate staff and customer facing “management”. I too believe seatback video gives passengers a distraction. I’ll always take Delta on a like route for that fact.

  8. @Shawn – I assume the lack of usefulness of seat maps prior to flight in recent times is due to lots of basic economy passengers who don’t get assigned seats until the end of the process.

  9. United had the first free inflight screening app, and many times even if there are screens on the UA planes, I prefer watching on their app on my tablet- bc it will “save” and I can just click “resume” on my connecting flight.
    And regarding United “some are nice and some are…not” I think sadly it reflects on “old United” vs the merged very morale-driven Continental flight crews. For the 8 or 9 years between ”merger of airline” and “merger of flight attendant crews” you could instantly tell if you had a Continental crew by their upbeat attitude.

  10. I agree with David above. American personel seem to be more “nit picky” for the rules. If they treated the passengers with more respect maybe American would have less alterations.

  11. In my experience it is how AA treats its customers. Treating people like cattle gets people who tire with the BS. Add in alcohol and mask rules that the drunk and uneducated don’t like is a recipe for disaster. Note that the incident mentioned was a first class passenger so its not just the low fare types that cause problems. I fly Delta and Southwest when possible and more likely to drive than fly AA, Spirit or Frontier. I have not flown American in a few years after my last miserable experience and will not fly them again. I have flown more miles on AA in my life since my dad is a former executive. He won’t fly them anymore either

  12. To help reduce the incidence of stressed-out passengers, American Airlines should consider passing out at least one or two complimentary “Snickers” candy bars to every passenger when they board. This low-cost solution helps decrease the violence against American Airlines crew members and passengers. Then, after 30 days, analyze if my “Snickers” solution helps to minimize those pesky aircraft diversions due to feisty, aggressive, impatient, cranky, cantankerous, grumpy, grouchy, moody, hostile, irritable, rebellious, whiny, snippy, and hangry passengers. I think distributing a few hundred dollars of candy is more cost-effective than diverting an aircraft. Furthermore, passing out candy to boarding passengers is appropriate for keeping onboard harmony. It helps promote the joyous Halloween spirit and extends the excellence in customer service passengers expect when choosing to fly on American Airlines.

  13. Continued escalation of a confrontation over a mask during flight is not productive. The UA approach of not escalating during flight if the customer fails to heed one or two civilized warnings seems to be working well. Banning the noncompliant customer from future flights, without an onboard confrontation, appears to serve the overall safety interests of all concerned.

  14. I just flew HA ex-west coast; at least one passenger each way had to asked to put their mask on repeatedly (4-6 times during the flight). Flight attendants were polite and did not escalate despite repeated non-compliance. I agree with above commenters re: violent incidents depend on whether flight attendants escalate. IMO, non-escalation, then banning offenders from future flights is the right answer.

  15. @Timothy: Seriously? for years I avoided IAH and EWR because I could not stand the poor attitude of the lazy Continental crews. We must have flown different airlines.

  16. I am not loyal to any airline and use whatever fits schedule first, price second. I am usually a calm persons. In the last several years I had a few situations where I was really mad at either an airline or because of an FA or gate agent behaviour. It was always on AA. My personal experience is not statisticly relevant, but (at least for me) pretty telling.

  17. Wow, When I was captive NW in MSP I loved Continental. The FA’s were great and the food in FC was always a step up, not that any airline food is great!

  18. Almost everything AA mgmt does feeds the development of a hostile environment. D0, employees not empowered, Oasis, disgruntled workers, no seat back TV, etc, etc, etc. So its no surprise that people snap.
    DL have it figured out while UA are getting better after the nadir of the David Dao period.

  19. Certain routes seem to generate more issues than others. All aircraft should have cameras in the passenger seating areas or all flight attendants should have body cameras while working. Flight attendants aren’t the police. If someone refuses to wear a mask LET IT GO. Film the individual and let police deal with situation on the ground. Put unruly passengers on do not fly lists. Hire more sky-marshalls and stop diverting those marshall to flights with politicians

  20. @MatthewKlint Maybe you flew before the Bethune years??
    I can’t imagine in your journalistic position you would not have read “From Worst to First” at some point. Mr Bethune evidently was responsible for the great morale building in the nineties that continued to create the happy byproduct of great flight crews.
    Their purchase of United (after he retired) was explained to me as being “like marrying someone with bad debt: you take their name or their debt.” So sadly the great Continental reputation was depleted unfairly as the name had to be replaced with the word “United” on the planes, to avoid having to repay all of United’s accrued debt.
    While keeping the corporate Continental logo was great, many of us miss the unified Continental crew experience. (And don’t forget that OnePass won more Freddie’s than any other airline loyalty program ever. Continental was the only airline at the time to upgrade full-fare coach tickets.)

  21. I’m lifetime Platinum w around 3 million miles on AA. Long time EP but retired now to only Platinum. I live in an AA hub so fly them much more than any other carrier. I’ve also flown throughout the pandemic so have been on quite a few AA flights. My observations:

    1. I don’t buy the “grumpy flight attendant” argument. Maybe I am either lucky or treat them as professionals but have NEVER (in my memory of over 30 years flying AA and US) had a rude flight attendant. Some are not as friendly as others but all of them have been professional.
    2. I don’t buy the seat back entertainment argument. First of all, as you noted, SW doesn’t have them and UA is very inconsistent. Frankly, when I fly an airline with seat back entertainment I NEVER use it except to show the flight map. I’m perfectly happy w my Kindle and content on my mobile devices.
    3. Are you sure AA had more incidents on a per capita basis or just basing them on high profile incidents? I don’t know if the FAA has these statistics but it would be interesting to see them.
    4. My guess is due to lockdowns a lot of people want to travel and many are infrequent fliers who don’t understand the process. This adds more stress to them and may put them more on edge. Your comment about AA lower prices as well as having a MIA hub I think do play into this.

    Overall I am fine with AA flight and in-flight crews and have never seen them be rude to any passenger on flights I’ve taken.

    Gary – you seem to really have a burr up your a$$ against AA and Marriott. Your bias is showing and it isn’t a pretty sight.

  22. I suspect its way that AA flights attendants have been trained to handle the situations… instead of deescalating, they seem to want to be ‘enforcers.’ 35,000ft is not the right place to be ‘enforcing’ a stupid petty rule such as wearing a mask. If they don’t comply, take note, ban them, but move on. It’s certainly not worth diverting or creating a scene over.

  23. The crew member that was violently attacked is nothing short of professional and kknd. This aircraft had seatback entertainment, blankets and pillows.

    Southwest had the incident where a passenger knocked out a flight Attendants tooth.

    If passengers cannot abide by the rules and act like adults that have their emotions in check, they need to stay at home.

    How disgusting of a creature are you to attempt to profit off someone’s misery.

    Yet, another man #victimblaming for his benefit.

  24. @Emme – I’m not asking ‘why did this incident happen?’ This incident happened because a passenger behaved unacceptably, period. My question is, why on average does American seem to have incidents with passengers more than competitors?

  25. Given that this incident was on one of AA’s A321T aircraft – a very low density, premium configured aircraft with a much higher flight attendant ratio than other aircraft, there has to be consideration of the flight attendants’ ability to de-escalate the situation. We don’t know what cabin the person was in or what they paid but if AA has to deeply discount to fill seats on this aircraft type, they have much bigger problems than FAs.
    There needs to be data by airline re: passenger misbehavior but it is pretty likely that American does a below-average job of handling passengers.
    It is interesting, though, that according to the DOT, United has a higher passenger complaint ratio than American – both of which are higher than just about every other airline including Delta and Southwest.

  26. When do we read about David Sherlock acting up on a flight? He seems like the type.

    There should be zero tolerance for this behavior. If a passenger causes a problem they are permanently banned from U.S. air travel. PERIOD. There is no right to air travel in the constitution.

  27. So you have verified it was a first class passenger? I have not seen that noted anywhere else…..

  28. Is this really a question? Their hubs are:


    and its often on these flights where there are incidents. The California ones are flying to/from SNA where you’d be shot for wearing a mask. Its the people. Its not the flight attendants. It’s not the airline. Its not the pricing. Its the people.

    COVID isn’t really a political issue. There are just too many people who went all in on Trumper logic and simply cannot go back.

    That’s fine, but at some point we have to stop listening to them and start mocking them until they stop being such anti american cowards like we see in these videos.

  29. @AC, can you ever comment on something without always throwing in some kind of DYKWIA sentence in there?

  30. Honestly, shame on you for insinuating these awful events happening on flights are anyones fault but the passengers themselves. I know the poor FA that was assaulted last night, and she is nothing short of an above and beyond professional Flight Attendant. Shame on you, and your blog.

  31. Interesting thing is that mask compliance confrontations seemed to be in some ways higher for ATL flights than for SFO flights, and yet DL seemed to have its passengers less likely to stir a stink on board over masks than AA flights serving the same airport.

    PHX, DFW and MIA passengers more problematic than ATL passengers? Seems so. But AA is also a worse flying experience domestically than DL, and maybe that makes things hotter for hot heads too — whether it’s the passengers or the airline crew members.

  32. Bad DeSantis, Abbott and Ducey effect.

    The apples don’t fall far from the apple tree, and having the bad DADs as governor bears fruits for the state and the flying public wherever their in-state and out-of-state fan base goes.

  33. GU Wonder,
    please provide evidence that this passenger – on a flight from one Dem-controlled state to another – had anything to do with Texas, Florida or Arizona.
    You can’t because your agenda is about politics rather than a meaningful discussion about the facts relative to THIS discussion which is why American apparently has a whole lot more passenger incidents than other airlines even when adjusted for the number of passengers carried.

  34. Love all the non-Miami residents here who don’t have a clue what actually living there is like. I consistently witness more masks being worn at Publix and such in Miami than at comparable places in Philadelphia/New Jersey when I head there to visit family.

    The issue with Miami isn’t Trump, DeSantis, etc. It’s nothing political at all. It’s just the simple fact that South Florida is a party destination with low fares. I’d be willing to bet most of these incidents in South Florida involve visitors and not Florida residents.

  35. I agree with the low cost. If they raised their prices, the proletariat peasants would no longer be able to afford them. Let’s hope they raise prices. Sometimes the stench of the working man is overpowering.

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