One flight attendant needed medical attention for a crippling migraine brought on by confronting a passenger who refused to wear a mask.

The day after the siege on Capitol Hill, passengers on a shuttle bus with a Black flight attendant assailed her with racial slurs, according to a union for flight attendants.

Aviation safety officials have received dozens of confidential complaints in the past year from attendants trying to enforce mask safety rules. The reports, filed in the Aviation Safety Reporting System database, at times describe a chaotic, unhinged workplace where passengers regularly abuse airline employees.

“I felt like if this man is bold enough to scream ‘SHUT UP’ at me in the cabin, there is no limits,” a flight attendant said in one report.

The coronavirus pandemic and political divisions of the past year have caused fear, economic pain, and social and family rifts around the country, but for airline workers, and flight attendants in particular, the unease and tension have often converged in a tiny cabin space.

The tension is at a level flight attendants have not seen before, said Paul Hartshorn Jr., a veteran attendant and a spokesperson for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union.

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“I think we’re pretty well trained on how to handle a disruptive passenger,” said Hartshorn, 46. “What we’re not trained to do and what we shouldn’t be dealing with is large groups of passengers inciting a riot with another group of passengers.”

“It’s insane,” he added.

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A ‘mob mentality’ on planes

Even as airlines have struggled to contend with the pandemic, attendants have increasingly faced problems from passengers attacking one another over politics.

Most prominently, before the Trump rally in Washington and the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, supporters of President Donald Trump were recorded on multiple flights to Washington heckling other passengers, including Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

On one packed American Airlines flight from Dallas to Washington on Jan. 5, Maranie R. Staab, a photojournalist flying to cover the rally, said that many of the passengers wearing red, white and blue clothing and hats bearing Trump’s name, were quiet during the flight.

When the plane began descending, a passenger used a mini projector to flash an image of “Trump 2020” inside the darkened cabin. Staab said a Black passenger made a comment that clearly angered several Trump supporters, who accused him of threatening them.

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“Stand up, boy,” one man said, according to a video Staab posted on Twitter.

“These are the guys we came to wipe out,” said a passenger, cursing as he held a small American flag.

When they got off the flight, Staab said she saw a group surround the Black passenger, and at the baggage claim, a flight attendant approached Staab and asked for her contact information. Several passengers had told the flight attendant that she should have done something about the Black passenger and said they would file a complaint.

“She seemed tough, but rattled,” Staab said.

In the aftermath of the riot, airlines, flight attendants and authorities moved to prevent similar altercations. American Airlines crews were given access to private transportation during layovers in Washington-area airports. Delta barred six people from the airline after a group heckled Romney, according to a spokesperson.

United Airlines moved its crews from downtown Washington hotels, and American Airlines, which had stopped serving alcohol in the main cabin because of the pandemic, also banned alcohol in first class for flights out of Washington.

Some Democrats have called for Capitol Hill “insurrectionists” to be added to the federal no-fly list, a demand that worries civil libertarians. Manar Waheed, senior legislative and advocacy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that expanding the no-fly list would “further entrench an error-prone and unconstitutional system that will continue to be used unfairly against people of color.”

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And this month, the Federal Aviation Administration said passengers who assault or interfere with airline workers could face prison time and a $35,000 fine.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in a statement that the “mob mentality” the public witnessed on some flights “will not happen again.”

Months without a paycheck

Last October, about 100,000 airline workers were furloughed from their jobs. More than 45,000 workers lost not only their paychecks, but medical benefits, according to the Association of Flight Attendants.

Brittany Riley, 31, a union member who has worked for United Airlines for nine years, said that her seniority allowed her to keep those benefits.

But for months, she and her husband, Peter Golembiewski, who is also a flight attendant, took money out of their savings and retirement plan to pay for bills.

In November, Riley said she was hospitalized with severe abdominal pain. Doctors ran a series of tests that led to thousands of dollars in bills despite her health insurance.

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“Some of the bills are starting to come in, and our eyes are getting bigger and bigger,” she said. “I just don’t know how much more we can handle.”

The stimulus package passed by Congress in December provided $15 billion to airlines, allowing companies to recall furloughed flight attendants. But the funding did not cover the wages lost in October and November. And the package provided only enough funding to keep workers on the payroll through March. The uncertainty of what happens after that is agonizing, Riley said.

“We need a more settled, permanent plan for our future,” she said. “If not, I don’t know how a lot of us are going to make it.”

‘People feel a bit more emboldened’

At least 1,000 flight attendants have been infected with the coronavirus since the pandemic started, according to the Association of Flight Attendants.

Airlines have strict mask policies but the Trump administration refused to order a mandate on interstate travel, putting the onus on flight attendants and other workers to enforce mask rules. In one case in September, a flight attendant complained that an airline captain did not wear a mask while greeting passengers.

“We need someone to have a serious talk with the pilots about keeping us all safe and wear masks,” the attendant stated in an aviation safety report.

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On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring masks on buses, planes and trains.

Mitra Amirzadeh, a flight attendant from Orlando, Florida, and a union member, said she put three people on a no-fly list for violating the airline’s mask policy.

She said she has had to rouse cranky, dozing passengers whose mask slipped beneath their noses. It’s either that, Amirzadeh said, or contend with passengers angry that she isn’t doing enough to enforce the mandate.

Amirzadeh said she has also had to face accusations of racism.

During a flight this month a passenger lectured her for telling a Black passenger who was having difficulty with a middle seat that he could not be upgraded to the front unless he paid for it. Amirzadeh said she told the Black passenger, who was about 6-foot-3, that she would get him a row to himself in the back once everyone had boarded.

“He was totally fine with that,” she said. But Amirzadeh said that a white passenger sitting across the aisle called out, “If he had been white you would have moved him up.”

Later, when passengers were leaving, Amirzadeh said the woman told her, “You’ll be hearing from me soon.”

“People feel a bit more emboldened or empowered to voice their grievances,” Amirzadeh said. “Everyone wants to be heard.”

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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