85% of flight attendants have dealt with an unruly passenger in 2021: Survey

Nearly one in five flight attendants were subjected to a physical incident.

As more people return to the skies, the largest flight attendant union in the U.S. is sounding the alarm on a rise in unruly passengers.

Eighty-five percent of the nearly 5,000 U.S. flight attendants The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO (AFA) surveyed said they had dealt with an unruly passenger in 2021.

Almost 60% said they had experienced not one, but at least five incidents this year, and 17% reported that the incident got physical.

Flight attendants recalled incidents in which visibly drunk passengers verbally abused them, "aggressively" challenged them for making sure passengers were in compliance with the federal mask mandate, shoved them, kicked seats, threw trash at them and defiled the restrooms.

More than half of the flight attendants reported that unruly passengers used racist, sexist and/or homophobic slurs.

"I've been yelled at, cursed at and threatened countless times in the last year and the most that has come out of it has been a temporary suspension of travel for the passenger," one flight attendant wrote in the survey. "We need real consequences if flight attendants are ever going to feel safe at work again.”

The AFA is doubling down on its call for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Justice (DOJ) to "protect passengers and crew from disruptive, and verbally and physically abusive travelers."

The FAA is still enforcing its zero-tolerance policy for in-flight disruptions which could lead to fines as high as $52,500 and up to 20 years in prison. The agency has looked into more than 610 potential violations of federal law so far this year --- the highest number since the agency began keeping records in 1995.

When asked if any unruly passenger has paid the FAA's proposed fine, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson in late May didn't answer directly, saying only that the administration was still in the "very early stages" of enforcing the policy.

Last month, a coalition of airline lobbying groups and unions called on the Justice Department to go a step further and prosecute unruly passengers "to the fullest extent of the law."

"It is time to make the FAA ‘zero tolerance’ policy permanent," AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson said in a statement. "The Department of Justice to utilize existing statute to conduct criminal prosecution, and implement a series of actions proposed by our union to keep problems on the ground and respond effectively in the event of incidents."

"Let me be clear in underscoring something," Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said at a news conference in May. "It is a federal mandate that one must wear a mask in an airport, in the modes of public transportation, on the airplane itself — and we will not tolerate behavior that violates the law."

Seventy-one percent of surveyed flight attendants across 30 airlines said they "received no follow-up" when they filed an incident report with airline management and a majority said they "did not observe efforts to address the rise in unruly passengers by their employers."

Out of the 3,615 unruly passenger reports received by the FAA since January, the vast majority, 2,666, involved people who refuse to wear a mask.

"This is not just about masks as some have attempted to claim," Nelson said. There is a lot more going on here and the solutions require a series of actions in coordination across aviation."

ABC News' Luke Barr contributed to this report.

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