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SALT LAKE CITY — Flight attendants are sharing their outrage as major U.S. airlines are bringing in-flight alcohol service back after widespread bans were put in place to help address a rash of disruptive and sometimes violent passenger incidents amid pandemic restrictions, many in response to COVID-19 protocols like masking.
Southwest Airlines is the latest to announce it will put wine, beer and liquor back on the beverage menus for most flights after pausing alcohol service in March 2020.
"Customers have expressed a desire for more beverage options, so we're delighted to restore additional onboard offerings as a part of the Southwest hospitality that our customers know and love," said Tony Roach, vice president of customer experience and customer relations in a press release last week.
The union representing Southwest's 16,000 flight attendants, Dallas-based Transport Workers Union 556, issued a strong response to the decision after the union's efforts to convince airline managers to keep the ban in place, or only allow alcohol on longer flights, failed.
"TWU Local 556 is outraged at Southwest Airlines' resumption of alcohol sales, a move we consider to be both unsafe and irresponsible," said TWU 556 president Lyn Montgomery in a statement shared with the Deseret News. "We have adamantly and unequivocally informed management that resuming sales of alcohol while the mask mandate is in place has the great potential to increase customer noncompliance and misconduct issues.
"Additionally, adding these sales on ultra-short-haul flights puts flight attendants' safety and security at a level of risk that is unacceptable because of the possibility of injuries when flight attendants are serving drinks rather than being secure in jumpseats upon descent. Safety for all passengers and crew members on board is the No. 1 job of flight attendants, and it should be the No. 1 concern for Southwest Airlines, as well."
Southwest announced it will return to offering its "expanded selection of beverages" which includes wine, beer and spirits on Feb. 16 on all flights of 176 miles or more. Right now, American Airlines is the only major U.S. carrier that hasn't returned to its pre-pandemic alcohol service policy.
The Federal Aviation Administration reports it received nearly 6,000 reports of unruly passenger behavior in 2021, of which nearly 4,300 were related to face masks. Those reports led to over 1,000 investigations in 2021 for passengers who did not comply with FAA rules stipulating that "no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crewmember's duties aboard an aircraft being operated."
So far in 2022 and as of Feb. 1, the FAA reports it has logged 323 reports of unruly passenger behavior, with 205 of those reports related to face masks.
A Sunday report in Inc. Magazine detailed just a few of the issues that Southwest attendants have had to navigate:
- In November, the FAA announced it was fining a Southwest passenger $40,000 for bringing their own alcohol on a Southwest flight last year, drinking it and smoking marijuana in the passenger lavatory, and sexually assaulting a flight attendant.
- Another Southwest passenger was arrested for allegedly punching a Southwest employee after a flight attendant ordered her off the plane.
- In December, a Southwest Airlines passenger pleaded guilty to federal felony charges stemming from an incident earlier in the year when she punched a flight attendant in the face, knocking out two of her teeth.
Last year, the FAA announced a new, zero-tolerance policy to help address passenger misbehavior.
The agency said, historically, it had addressed unruly passenger incidents using a variety of methods ranging from warnings and counseling to civil penalties. But in January 2021, the FAA announced it would no longer address these cases with warnings or counseling but instead pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates or interferes with airline crew members.
"Flying is the safest mode of transportation and I signed this order to keep it that way," FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said when the new policy was announced.
Originally scheduled to expire on March 30, 2021, the policy has since been extended to March 18, 2022.
Last month, CNN reported that the FAA initiated enforcement actions on 350 cases in 2021.
The agency said it has not tallied the full amount levied in fines in 2021 against unruly passengers, but the figure had topped $1 million by August. A number of the incidents that prompted fines in 2021 involved alcohol.
Unruly passengers could also lose their Transportation Safety Administration PreCheck status, a possible consequence for bad behavior announced in December by the FAA and TSA.
Last week, Reuters reported Delta CEO Ed Bastian sent a previously unreported letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the U.S. government to place passengers convicted of onboard disruptions on a national "no-fly" list that would bar them from future travel on any commercial airline.
Bastian said Delta has placed nearly 1,900 people on Delta's "no-fly" list for refusing to comply with masking requirements and submitted more than 900 banned names to the Transportation Security Administration to pursue civil penalties.
Delta previously called on other airlines to share their unruly passenger "no-fly" list to ensure individuals "who have endangered the safety and security of our people do not go on to do so on another carrier," Bastian wrote.
The FAA also reached out to airport operators last August with a call for help on alcohol-related issues, including asking that the practice by some airport concessionaires of serving alcohol "to go" for boarding passengers be curtailed.
"Even though FAA regulations specifically prohibit the consumption of alcohol aboard an aircraft that is not served by the airline, we have received reports that some airport concessionaires have offered alcohol 'to go,' and passengers believe they can carry that alcohol onto their flights or they become inebriated during the boarding process," the letter reads. "Airports can help bring awareness to this prohibition on passengers carrying open alcohol onboard their flights ... through signage, public service announcements and concessionaire education."
Correction: An earlier version misstated the FAA fine for an unruly Southwest Airlines passenger as $400,000. The fine was $40,000.