One of my early childhood memories was pretending to be a flight attendant when I rode along on an empty commercial jet flown from one city to another by my father, a pilot. I walked down the aisle holding pleasant imaginary conversations and handing out Cokes.

Fast-forward a few decades, and my dream job has turned sinister. A cursory Google search turns up a trove of berserk, often drunk passengers punching, attacking, yelling, cursing, growling and threatening flight attendants, often over passengers’ refusal to wear masks, a federal requirement. I think we can all agree that public rudeness has reached new lows when a belligerent flier needs to be duct-taped to his seat.

“Flight attendants are saying very loudly to their union and anyone who will listen, ‘Make it stop,’ ” Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO told me. The viral spasms of violence don’t break out constantly, Nelson noted, “but it starts to feel violent because of the constant conflict, bickering and belittling.”

In 2021, the number of unruly-passenger incidents has skyrocketed: More than 5,500 were reported to the Federal Aviation Administration through Dec. 7, and 1,017 have been investigated, nearly six times the number of investigations in all of 2020. The trend is so alarming that Attorney General Merrick Garland recently told prosecutors to prioritize the criminal cases. Those charged with unruly behavior typically face fines, which have increased, and some have been barred by individual airlines.

Few experiences today crystallize the breakdown of civility as well as the airplane rebellion. And yet, if there is one place civility should reign, it’s on an airplane during a pandemic. The environment is so fragile: In a claustrophobic space, we sit wearing masks, elbow to elbow with strangers, fearing an invisible virus and snubbing gravity.

Civility, after all, is the grease that lubricates our social interactions. It demands thoughtfulness, a desire to choose words and actions carefully to keep the peace. And it depends on mutual respect. Unfortunately, too many people now feel they have a right to say and do whatever they want, whenever they want, in their fight for individual “freedom” and against “political correctness.”

“If we have a very polarized society where you think people who disagree with you are the enemy, then why should you bother to be concerned about what they think, or show them at least basic respect?” Keith J. Bybee, vice dean of Syracuse University’s law school and author of “How Civility Works said to me.

Bybee says civility has often waned during other high-stress moments in American history — in response to women fighting for the right to vote and work and Black people demanding an end to Jim Crow, for example.

Leaders also can help set an uncivil tone. Donald Trump turbocharged the current uptick in meltdowns by hurling insults plainly, crudely and often. His followers loved his tell-it-like-it-is style, and some eagerly mimicked his behavior.

Whatever the cause of incivility, Ron, 45, a longtime flight attendant for a major U.S. carrier, told me he suffers its consequences every day, particularly when assigned to red-state routes. “I get anxiety,” said Ron (who is allowing me to use only his first name).

Ron says he makes a habit of checking the roster for military passengers just in case he might need help. Then he girds for battle, watching out for people who wear masks on their chins or “lift and lower” as he walks past. If he fails to see scofflaws, he’ll still hear about them. “Passengers love to tattle,” he said.

Luckily, he hasn’t been physically hurt (unlike the attendant who got two teeth knocked out). Someone tried to spit on him … but missed. He did have to get someone escorted off a plane: The man boarded wearing a mask that read “F--- You” and an equally offensive T-shirt. He didn’t want to change his mask. He refused to listen. Then he cursed loudly at Ron and other agents — and got booted.

Rudeness is endemic, Ron said. Masks are most often the flash point, but any request can enrage passengers these days, even “put on your seat belt” or “sit down.”

“People just don’t want to be told what to do,” Ron said. “They may comply, but they are nasty.”

With airplanes frequently short-staffed, some passengers have jumped into the fray to help attendants, even aiding with the duct tape or zip ties — tools that were once reserved for dangerous hijackers, not mask-rejecting boneheads.

And while public announcements from pilots have helped, liquor consumption hasn’t. The pandemic prompted airlines to cut back alcoholic beverage service, but many unruly passengers smuggled in liquor from to-go airport concessions, some in Big Gulp-type cups. It doesn’t bode well that some airlines have resumed serving liquor in coach.

What do the front-line crew members think it will take to make the skies friendly again?

“People going to jail,” Nelson said. “That would help.”