RSW sees improvement in unruly passenger incidents, remain high nationally

Reporter: Peter Fleischer
Published: Updated:
FILE: Southwest Florida International Airport. (Credit: WINK News)

Behavior in airports and on airplanes has taken a significant turn for the worse over the last two and a half years.

“It’s like 2020 happened, and everyone lost their brains,” flight attendant Mitra Amirzadeh explains. “There are moments, I think, maybe we’re through the worst of it. And then, something crazy happens, and I’m like, nope! We’re still here, still dealing with it.”

Data from the Federal Aviation Administration shows a rise in unruly plane passengers that began in 2020, spiked in 2021, and persists today.

Lee County Port Authority Chief Shawn Chamberlain’s department presides over Southwest Florida International Airport. He says bad behavior has been felt in the Southwest Florida area.

“Over the past three years, there has been an increase in those types of calls,” Chief Chamberlain admits. “Calls where people are being disorderly and intoxicated.”

“I’ve seen or heard of a flight attendant that got punched in the head on the way out,” Amirzadeh admits. “We had a gate agent that got punched in the head.”

Port Authority data reflects the hike. RSW has seen nearly 40 arrests in its terminals since 2019, and the body camera footage paints a picture of unruly passengers.

The travel experience can be intense. But travelers can find themselves grounded and even behind bars if they pose a risk to themselves or others.

“We want to avoid that; we don’t want to do that,” Chief Chamberlain insists. “But sometimes that’s the route it has to go.”

The consequences can be severe when it does go that route, and arrests have to be made.

WINK News obtained body camera footage showing travelers arrested at RSW for crimes like disorderly intoxication, resisting arrest and breach of peace. Real charges that can lead to fines and even jail time.

Those in the air say there are training protocols they follow when passengers act up, so serious problems must be resolved once planes land.

“You can’t call 9-1-1 at 38 thousand feet, so we’re all ya got,” Amirzadeh says. “If we’re all you got, shouldn’t you be nice to us?”

Chief Chamberlain says his staff is also trained to diffuse conflicts peacefully, but they don’t always end peacefully.

“If force has to be used, or it goes down a different path, typically it is that person that sends us down that road,” Chamberlain says.

Passengers can usually avoid making a bad situation worse.

“Most of the things we encounter are resolved through simple communication,” Chamberlain claims. “That’s always recommended.”

There are signs of hope for the travel experience. Unruly passenger incidents are still happening far more often than pre-pandemic rates, but they’re down from 2021’s record-setting year.

“We are now in the early stages of seeing a decrease in that behavior again, which is good,” Chamberlain confirms.

RSW’s numbers are starting to normalize too. They’ve reported only two arrests for intoxication in 2022.

If a passenger does witness an incident in the air or on the ground, experts recommend avoiding getting involved if possible.

“Unless it looks like I’m under physical duress, don’t get involved,” Amirzedeh cautions. “No one’s going to get hurt in a shouting match; no one’s going to get hurt calling me names.”

“Be the best witness they can,” Chamberlain adds about passengers that witness an unruly incident. “We would prefer that citizens not put themselves in harm’s way if they don’t need to.”

With TSA predicting this summer will be the busiest travel season since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, more of us could find ourselves traveling with unruly passengers.

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