Flight attendants stressed as clashes with passengers rise: Union

Concerns are being raised about the health and well-being of flight attendants across the country.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees represents roughly 15,000 flight attendants of Canada’s major airlines and says its members are facing a growing number of air passengers ignoring the pandemic-related requirement to wear masks.

Troy Winters, senior health and safety officer for CUPE, calls it a stressful situation flight attendants did not sign up for.

“They find themselves in a metal tube 30,000 feet up in the air, and every person they approach about putting a mask on is a potential conflict,” he said.

There have been reports of increasingly disruptive mid-flight behaviour in the United States, but statistics from Transport Canada suggests non-compliance is a Canadian problem as well.

"It's not as bad as it is in the (United) States, there's not as much serious violence, but we certainly do have folks who are overly belligerent," said Winters.

According to Transport Canada, airlines have reported 1,173 instances of air passengers refusing to wear their masks since September 2020. During July and August, there were 330 cases reported to the regulator. It’s a spike that can be attributed to the growing number of people flying, but Winters is not convinced that’s the only factor.

“People are getting fatigued of the pandemic and the controls.”

Winters believes in-flight food and beverage service is partly to blame as well. He has heard accounts from flight attendants of passengers prolonging mealtimes for the sole purpose of keeping their masks off. As the pandemic continues, CUPE is calling on airlines to keep foodservice at a minimum.

“We’d like to see more required messaging for when people are getting on the planes, but also just before the food is served, reminding them to eat in a relatively efficient manner.”

When airlines report an incident of non-compliance to Transport Canada, the regulator has a range of enforcement measures at its disposal, from letters of warning for first time offences to monetary penalties of up to $5,000. Since September of last year, Transport Canada has levied fines against 36 passengers for failing to wear a mask.

Criminal charges are also possible in the event that a passenger uses abusive language, issues verbal or physical threats towards employees or other passengers, or is otherwise deemed to be "unruly."

Flight attendants say the official numbers actually downplay the seriousness of the situation. While Transport Canada asks airlines to report every instance of passengers refusing to wear a mask, Winters said in reality crew members only report the most severe cases.

"It's definitely under-reported," he said. "Everyone that you have to ask three times to put their mask back on isn't getting written up, because then you'd be writing forms from the time you got off the flight until a couple days later."

WestJet said it has issued 118 travel bans against passengers for refusing to wear a mask since the airline introduced its "zero tolerance" policy in September of 2020.

"Since January 1, 2021, we have safely flown more than three million guests who are doing an excellent job adhering to the regulations to ensure the safety of all," said WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell in an email. "The total cases of non-compliance represent less than 0.02 per cent of travellers."

With Thanksgiving and the holiday travel season around the corner, Winters is not convinced flight attendants will get a reprieve from disobedient passengers anytime soon.

“I have fear that the longer (the pandemic) drags out, the more we’ll get of this.”

With files from The Canadian Press