DALLAS – Airline customer-service agents say they often get verbal threats from passengers, and sometimes they turn into physical confrontations.
The agents say alcohol, airline fees and long lines can anger passengers.
The Government Accountability Office reported Tuesday that more than half the 104 agents it surveyed reported threats or other harmful action by customers in the past year. About 10% say they were physically assaulted.
The congressional investigative agency says comprehensive figures on passenger assaults are hard to find.
Airlines, airports and law enforcement say current laws are adequate to deter confrontations, and most say they have resources to deal with the problem.
A 2018 law required airlines to train agents in de-escalating conflicts. Airlines missed a deadline for submitting plans for handling passenger assaults.
Congress ordered the GAO to investigate violence against customer-service agents after media coverage of passenger misbehavior. In 2017, several hundred customers nearly rioted at a Spirit Airlines ticket counter at the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after Spirit canceled several flights.
The GAO said it interviewed employees of six airlines – Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest, Spirit and United – at five large airports where assaults had been reported. Five of the airlines refused to share information about incidents with GAO. The sixth, which was not identified, said its records for the second half of 2018 showed 1.2 assaults for every 1,000 passengers.
Airlines for America, a trade group representing the airlines in the survey, said employees are trained in defusing tense situations. “Airlines strive to make sure every employee has a safe working environment and every passenger has a safe and pleasant travel experience, and abusive behavior is addressed promptly,” said Carter Yang, a spokesman for the group.
Of agents who reported an incident with a customer, more than half said they believed that somebody from their airline, airport or law enforcement took action ranging from talking to the passenger to arresting them.
Agents whose reports were not acted upon said they felt a lack of support from airline management. Some agents believe airlines condone bad behavior by giving passengers seat upgrades or loyalty miles to defuse the situation.
Alcohol is the most commonly cited factor behind assaults, the GAO found. Some industry officials told GAO that passengers have more opportunity now to drink while waiting for a flight. Officials at one airport noted that passengers in the gate areas can use tablet computers to order drinks.
Interfering with an airline crew on board a flight is a federal crime, but incidents at airports are usually covered by state or local laws. The FBI can step in if it suspects a violation of federal law.
GAO said the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration said their roles in handling passenger assaults at airports were limited mostly to in-flight incidents or airport security, respectively.