Other passengers have verbally abused and taunted flight attendants trying to enforce airline mask requirements, treating the potentially lifesaving act as a pandemic game of cat-and-mouse. A loophole allowing the removal of masks while consuming food and beverages is a favorite dodge.
Asked to mask up, one passenger pulled out a large bag of popcorn and nibbled her way through it, kernel by kernel, stymieing the cabin crew for the length of the flight. Others blew off requests by chomping leisurely on apple slices, between occasional coughs, or lifting an empty plastic cup and declaring: “I am drinking!”
The displays of rule-bucking intransigence are described in more than 150 aviation safety reports filed with the federal government since the start of the pandemic and reviewed by The Washington Post. The reports provide an unguarded accounting of bad behavior by airline customers, something executives hit by a steep drop in travel and billions in pandemic-related losses are loath to share themselves.
Some reports raise safety concerns beyond the risk of coronavirus infection. A flight attendant reported being so busy seeking mask compliance that the employee couldn’t safely reach a seat in time for landing.
One airline captain, distracted by mask concerns, descended to the wrong altitude. The repeated talk of problem passengers in Row 12 led the captain to mistakenly head toward 12,000 feet, not a higher altitude given by air traffic control to keep planes safely apart. The error was caught, and “there was no conflicting traffic,” the captain wrote.
Some passengers are portrayed as oblivious, obstinate, foul-mouthed and, at times, dangerous. One called a flight attendant a “Nazi.” Another “started to rant how the virus is a political hoax and that she doesn’t wear a mask,” a flight attendant reported.
With millions of passengers ignoring warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to refrain from holiday travel, the reports offer an X-ray into the country’s deeper failures against the coronavirus — and insights into the pitfalls and possibilities facing a new presidential administration.
While the White House under President Trump has, at times, been dismissive or hostile toward masks, President-elect Joe Biden is making a patriotic appeal to “mask up for 100 days,” whatever people’s politics. Biden has said he will sign an order on his first day requiring masks for “interstate travel on planes, trains and buses.” How well those efforts will work remains to be seen.
Experts in psychology and decision-making say hostility toward wearing masks, even within the shared confines of a passenger jet, has been fueled by politicization — but also by skewed incentives and inconsistent messaging.
“The reinforcement principles are backward,” said Paul Slovic, who studies the psychology of risk at the University of Oregon.
The usual signs of danger, and rewards for following potentially bothersome rules, are thrown off by a virus that is spread easily by people who don’t know they have it, Slovic said.
“You get an immediate benefit for not following the guidelines because you get to do what you want to do,” Slovic said. “And you don’t get punished for doing the wrong thing” because it’s not immediately clear who is being harmed.
The “squishiness of the requirement” to wear masks on planes also undermines the message that they are critical for public health, Slovic said. In contrast, he cites the rigid clarity of the ban on flying with a firearm. “It’s not, ‘You can carry it as long as you don’t use it,’ ” Slovic said.
But passengers are allowed to drop their masks to snack and sip…