The FAA usually sees 100 – 150 cases of bad inflight behavior filed with them each year. Already this year there have been 2500, 1900 of which have deal with refusal to wear a mask. Most inflight disturbances don’t make it to the FAA.
We’ve seen a real increase in inflight conflicts, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. There are generally five reasons why we’re heading towards a new peak.
- More passengers = more incidents. Air travel is recovering, there are more people in the sky than there have been since before the pandemic. Sheer numbers make it more likely we’ll see more disturbances as passenger volumes stretch towards 1.9 million per day in the U.S.
- Fewer business travelers means a greater percentage of passengers likely to have issues There are fewer experienced passengers on board who are a dead-end against drama, the person sitting next to a first time flyer is more likely than ever to be a first time flyer.
- Distrust of elites and experts. The same broader society issues that manifect themselves in electoral polarization get brought on board the plane. Experts have largely failed us in the pandemic, and their advice has been inconsistent. We were told not to wear masks before being told to wear them. Somehow taking off the mask has become a symbol of standing up for ones’ self against the tyranny of rule by experts who are increasingly seen as flawed.
- Increased vaccination rates. More and more people see themselves as no longer needing to wear a mask, since evidence suggests strongly that recipients of mRNA vaccines are both unlikely to get or spread the virus (and for those who haven’t been vaccinated yet, that’s largely a decision they’re making for themselves and shouldn’t impose costs on others for it). This is doubly the case now that the CDC even says vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks indoors in crowded bars, yet rules for masking during travel remain in place. This also reinforces skepticism about ‘experts’ and whether rules rely on science.
- Politicization of masks in the wrong direction. Masks should have been the conservative alternative to big government lockdowns. Instead they became a political flash point of government ‘control’. People who feel powerless lash out in whatever way they can.
With more leisure travelers than ever, and a greater proportion of first-time travelers, every airline’s passengers are Spirit Airlines passengers now. Throw people together from various backgrounds and with their own life issues inside a metal tube and give them a requirement that isn’t obviously benefiting them at the end of 15 months of frustration and deprivation and we inevitably see conflict.
As people continue to get vaccinated, as virus case loads and hospitalizations continue to fall, more and more people will see less and less reason to mask up in the face of requirements to do so that seem to no longer be backed by the science or at least consistent with other CDC pronouncements. And masks have become an outlet for political protest. So we’re going to see more mask incidents on planes until the requirement is finally lifted.