Skip to main content
By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Flight attendants are learning to fight back against unruly passengers — just in case

Air marshals are teaching flight crews how to deal with violent behavior, training they need now more than ever

Flight attendants and crew members around the country are training in self-defense with federal air marshals. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

“You want a drink, sir?”

The passenger looked up at the male flight attendant, then slurred a request for five more drinks. The flight attendant refused, causing the drunk traveler to become irate.

He lunged out of his seat toward the flight attendant when an air marshal appeared, pummeling the unruly passenger. The man’s hands were now cuffed behind his back.

This was just a drill. The drunk passenger was from the Federal Air Marshal Service. But the dangerous behavior flight crews are dealing with in the skies today is very real.

In a nondescript office building near LaGuardia Airport in Queens, N.Y., a group of real flight attendants watched the drill in a fake airplane, beginning their four-hour self-defense training run by the Transportation Security Administration. TSA has offered these classes across the country free to flight crew since 2004, but they seem more relevant than ever.

As air travel began to rebound from its pandemic rock-bottom, so has bad passenger behavior. The Federal Aviation Administration has received nearly 4,000 reports of unruly passengers in 2021, a massive uptick from the 146 total reports received in 2019.

“This is the most dangerous and uncertain time in our entire history,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

Nelson says the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the profession for myriad reasons, from the fear of contracting coronavirus to the logistic issues of returning to an industry operating with a staffing shortage.

“Flight attendants are working longer days with shorter nights, wearing masks for 14, 15 hours a day … having a harder time getting nutrition throughout the day and charged with keeping everyone safe on the plane,” Nelson said. “Those are just the basics.”

When passengers are out of control, flight attendants reach for a last resort: Duct tape

While most flights get from A to B without incident, the new stressors are driving flight attendants to seek out TSA’s voluntary self-defense training.

“I just wanted to make sure that I’m prepared for anything that could happen,” says Katie, a flight attendant attending the training at the Federal Air Marshal Service New York field office. So she could speak freely, she asked that her last name and employer to be kept private.

During her 17 years working in the industry, Katie was always interested in enrolling in the class, but because it only takes place at a handful of locations across the country, it was difficult to find the right free time in her travel schedule.

During the pandemic, the monthly four-hour classes were put on hiatus until July of this year. When Katie got an email announcing class openings in the New York area, she jumped at the opportunity to attend.

“I’ve been involved in situations before,” she said. “And we have de-escalation scenarios that we try to run through to the best of our abilities, but sometimes it just gets to a level that we need a little extra defense training,” she said.

‘It’s so chaotic’: What flight attendants want you to know as you travel again

After watching the pretend scenarios in the simulated airplane, the flight attendants were taken to a room with a padded mat floor to learn how to physically and mentally prepare themselves for aggressive-passenger interactions.

The instructors demonstrated how to stand, move and approach an attacker, as well as fight or defend themselves with their hands, elbows, palms, knees, feet and shins. Some techniques are standard, like a punch to the face. Others are new, like raking an attacker’s face with your nails. The flight attendants wince at the mention of gouging an attacker’s eyes.

“Remember, this guy is attacking you,” the air marshal said, encouraging the class to keep their warrior mind-set.

Katie and the other flight attendants practiced their new techniques on the air marshals, punching bags and B.O.B.s, or “Body Opponent Bags,” life-size dummies.

“I want you to strike through him,” an air marshal told Katie’s group of flight attendants while demonstrating a palm heel strike to a B.O.B. “I want you to take his head off.”

Judith, another flight attendant in attendance who requested to keep her last name and employer private, believes unruly passengers have been an issue for the airline industry for years. It is not just the pandemic triggering the latest violence.

Woman is duct-taped to her seat after trying to open plane door midflight, airline says

“I think it’s the many layers of stress,” said Judith, who has been a flight attendant for nearly a decade. “There is the stress of getting to the airport, the stress of going through the security, stress of getting up early, stress of traveling, stress of family, traveling with family.”

Stephanie Metzger, a supervisory air marshal in charge who was on-site for the training, said a big part of the class is to build self confidence, as well as give flight crew critical self-defense lessons. The right mind-set is essential for carrying out the defenses.

“This is important training for flight attendants because it prepares them with the basic skills that are needed for them to be able to address unruly passengers on board aircraft,” Metzger said.

Nelson agrees. Taking the class one time is not enough to turn flight attendants into self-defense experts, and it is not going to solve the issue of violence on planes, but “it gives just some basic maneuvers to help better protect yourself from getting hurt,” she said.

The flight attendants finished the class sweating and tired. Despite the serious nature of the course, they ended on a high note, laughing and swapping contact information with the air marshals who encouraged them to return to the class whenever they would like.

Katie hopes she will be able to take refresher courses to keep her new skills fresh in her mind going forward.

“I hope that it doesn’t get to the physical level, but more and more these days it has been sort of getting to the physical level,” she said. “I think it’s really important to make sure that you’re prepared for that as well.”

Judith, who had never taken self-defense or martial arts classes before her TSA experience, found the training rewarding, albeit conflicting.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody. I never want to use these techniques on a real person,” she said. “But it was surprisingly fun and very gratifying to see how a little technique can really do big changes.”