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Union blames food, booze for rise in passenger misbehaviour in the air

Return of in-flight services making it harder for airline staff to enforce restrictions
Passengers wear protective face masks and are physically distanced on a flight from Calgary to Vancouver, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. The union representing flight attendants at Canada’s major airlines says reducing on-board food and drink service might help combat passenger bad behaviour in the skies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

After more than a year of bare-bones in-flight service due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians travelling by air can once again enjoy snacks, hot meals or a glass of wine on the plane.

But this return to some degree of normalcy — while welcomed by many — is also making it harder for airlines to enforce rules around mask-wearing and may be contributing to a recent uptick in unruly passenger behaviour, according to a flight attendants’ union.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees — which represents more than 15,000 flight attendants at nine different Canadian airlines, including WestJet, Air Canada and Transat — says passenger disobedience, rudeness and aggressive behaviour is on the rise and jeopardizing the health and well-being of airline employees.

CUPE National senior officer for health and safety Troy Winters said many of the problems stem from passengers who refuse to obey the federal requirement to wear a face mask on board, a problem he said has gotten worse since the summer, when airlines began reintroducing food and beverage service.

“Even before they brought back the return to some level of service, we’d have people who would bring on a coffee. And then they’d sit there, and they’d sip that coffee for an hour and a half,” Winters said. “This has kind of been the trick people have been using to not wear their masks on the plane since the mandate was introduced, so restoring food and beverage service has definitely made it worse.”

According to Transport Canada, incidences of passenger non-compliance with the mask mandate spiked over the summer. Airlines reported 330 passengers to the regulator for refusing to wear a mask during July and August, more than twice the number of incidents reported in April and May.

“For flight attendants, it’s the stress of having to be the mask police, and knowing the only reason you’re going down this aisle is someone is doing something they shouldn’t and you’re going to have some level of conflict,” Winters said.

Winters said Transport Canada needs to do more to address the issue. The regulator’s official guidance is still that airlines should limit non-essential tasks, including in-flight service. Winters said the regulator should take a stricter stance on enforcing that guidance, at least on short flights, or else set a limit on the amount of time a passenger can have their mask off to eat and drink.

—Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press

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