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Why Flight Attendants Duct Tape Unruly Passengers

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flight attendant in airplane cabin with duct tape

In 2021, airlines faced two instances in which airplane passengers had to be restrained via duct tape while in flight.

In July of 2021, a woman trying to escape her American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Charlotte reportedly attempted to open the emergency exits mid-air and attacked flight attendants as they tried to subdue her. A few weeks later, in August 2021, Maxwell Berry was restrained to his seat via duct tape after allegedly groping two flight attendants and assaulting a third on a Frontier Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Miami.

The action may seem extreme but it calls into question how vulnerable flight attendants are to attacks and how ill-equipped they are to deal with these incidents.

Flight attendants are trained to handle onboard incidents.

Flight attendants undergo self-defense training to deal with onboard incidents but the question of how equipped they are to restrain passengers — and with what materials — may differ from airline to airline. A source close to YourTango who works for an airline based in the U.S. let us in on what exactly their standard procedure is.

“We’re taught to deescalate first and foremost so it should never come to having to duct tape someone’s mouth,” they said, adding, “We’re not supposed to restrain passengers unless it gets to a certain threat level that’s physical and likely to cause bodily harm.”

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In the case of the woman on the American Airlines flight, flight attendants and passengers did to console her when she started yelling and asking to get off the plane, but to no avail. Finally, when she attempted to open the emergency doors, which would have put the entire plane in danger, she was tackled and restrained by the crew.

Similarly, in the Berry incident, after he groped the two flight attendants, a third flight attendant was sent to watch him. But Berry decided he would assault his guardian, causing the crew to restrain him.

Duct tape is not an approved method of restraint onboard.

Deescalating the situation doesn't seem like the most viable option when passengers are a direct threat, but our source is still shocked by the use of duct tape in this manner.

“We have certain restraint systems on the plane that don’t include duct tape,” our source said. While it may seem like a quick fix, our source noted that duct-taping someone to their seat is a safety hazard that can potentially prevent people from evacuating the plane in the event of an emergency. “We have flex cuffs which are basically like big zip ties," the source continued, adding that "we don’t even have duct tape anywhere on the plane so I don't know where these flight attendants are getting it.”

After these two similar incidents, United Airlines issued a memo to its flight attendants reminding them not to use duct tape on unruly passengers.

"Please remember that there are designated items onboard that may be used in difficult situations, and alternative measures such as tape should never be used," the memo stated.

It’s odd that two different airlines and two different isolated incidents had duct tape on board to help them restrain these passengers, but can you really blame them for having to resort to something like that?

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Flight attendants are vulnerable to assault from passengers.

The incidents show just how exposed flight attendants are when dealing with passengers and how easily they can be blamed. In the first incident, there were no repercussions for the flight attendants who had to deal with the female passenger. In the case of Maxwell Berry, however, the crew members were sent on paid leave while ‘pending investigations’ were completed.

Some are wondering why the crew was suspended in the first place, which Sara Nelson, Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) President, addressed in a tweet following the Frontier flight attendants' suspension. 

In the air, “Flight attendants are your security guards, firefighters, police officers, and medics. [They] aren’t only trying to keep themselves safe but also all of the other passengers,” said our source. “Would you want to be on a plane for hours with someone carrying on like that?”

In a lot of these situations, there isn’t much for a flight crew to do. Flex cuffs only restrain your hands, so these violent and lashing passengers would still be able to get out of their seats and cause problems, as well as continue to yell and frighten everyone else on the plane.

When all else fails, what are you supposed to do?

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Instances of unruly passengers increased by 492% from 2020 to 2021.

The FAA has reported an increase in unruly passengers, reaching a high of 5,973 unruly passenger reports in 2021, up 492% from the year prior. Pandemic fatigue, novice flyers and a general rise in violence have all contributed to the increase in cases, which have become so bad that the FAA and the FBI began working together in 2021 on a zero-tolerance campaign for unruly passengers.

“Unruly behavior poses serious safety concerns for passengers and crew alike, which is why we are addressing this issue aggressively,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in 2023. “If you act out on an airplane, you can face criminal prosecution and fines up to $37,000 per violation.” 

In since-deleted tweets from an account believed to his, Berry reportedly wrote, "To be clear I DID NOT GROPE ANYBODY. This is just the stupid narrative that the media is pushing... This will forever be the most dehumanizing experience in my entire life. Many people laughed and ridiculed me as I was mistreated by staff of a PROFESSIONAL airline. Just to make matters worth this has gone 'viral' on the internet and will never disappear."

Regardless, in 2023, Berry was sentenced to 60 days in prison followed by a year of supervised release, to which one flight attendant who restrained him responded.

"My number one role on any aircraft is to protect the passengers, including Maxwell Berry who we did get to Miami safely that day," the flight attendant said. "The duct tape might've looked a bit barbaric and contend maybe we went a little too overboard, however, it worked perfectly and no one got hurt, because of how we did what we did."

While it’s unlikely that you’ll be duct taped to your seat on your next flight, be nice to the crew — they deal with enough already.

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Isaac Serna-Diez is a writer who focuses on entertainment and news, social justice and relationships.