Flight Attendants Take Self-Defense Classes


Flight attendants are trying to even the odds of ending their shifts in one piece by taking self-defense classes. The uptick in in-flight violence by passengers has made airliner cabins a potentially perilous place to work and the focused curriculum of the classes, taught by federal Marshals, is specifically aimed at handling problem passengers in those close quarters. “We are finding that our jobs are harder than ever,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told CNN. “Conflict is rising very quickly. When we can’t get to that and diffuse that because we have so much going on … problems can become big very quickly.”

Among those taking the training was Donna O’Neil, a safety demo veteran of 47 years who was practicing serving up an elbow smash should the occasion arise. “I don’t ever want to use any of this,” O’Neil told CNN. “But if I had to, I certainly feel much more confident.” Only a fraction of flights have air marshals on board and Noel Curtin, a supervisor for the service, said the flight crew is the line of defense against in-flight violence. “There’s no backup at 30,000 feet,” Curtin said.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. I don’t know any flight attendants so I don’t know who to ask, but I’d be very surprised if many FAs were not already pursuing self-defense training on their own before this officially-sourced program came about.

    • I wish they would teach de-escalation classes instead of asking FA’s to bring a fight. Most instances I hear could have been de-escalated to non- events if the FA’s had backed off and settled things after the flight.

  2. There needs to be more civility all around these days. My wife and I took a commercial flight recently and were surprised to learn mask mandates remain in effect for commercial travel. That’s fine–we’re both vaccinated and neither of us has a problem complying with “the rulz.” Then this happened: We usually bring our own beverages because most airlines do not offer the stuff we like. My wife opened her soda just as the FAs started inflight service, but she forgot about the pressure changes, and it bubbled over and spilled. She had lowered her mask in anticipation of taking a drink, but when the soda bubbled over she bent down to clean up the spill. It was just at that moment the FA got to our aisle to ask if we wanted anything. My wife was still cleaning the spill but said no thank you. The FA told my wife she had to have her mask over her mouth and nose. My wife started to explain that she was getting ready to take a drink, then the spill happened… The FA didn’t give her a chance to finish. She leaned across me (sitting in the aisle seat), got right in my wife’s face and said, “You lower that mask to take a drink, then you put it right back. If that drink isn’t right under your nose you put that mask on. You got that?”

    We didn’t get mad, we actually looked at each other and laughed out loud at the absurdity of the FA’s response. I get that everyone has a bad day now and again (this was the first flight of the day–a 7a departure), nor am I suggesting that kind of behavior from an FA deserves a violent response, but belligerence often begets belligerence. Everyone needs to calm the heck down out there…

    • I’m really sorry you had that experience, the tongue lashing was uncalled for. For context, though, I have been on several flights where many people just wouldn’t follow the rules. They drop their mask the minute the FA is out of sight. They wear it as a chin strap. They wear a mask that’s little more than a veil, even though they have an actual mask with them. They open a drink, sip it occasionally throughout the flight, and use it as a pretext to not mask, as if just following the rules for everyone’s protection were just too much for them. The FAs must really get sick of that, and of course people have punched FAs over mask compliance so they are looking to establish their authority. I don’t think the FAs are the problem, it’s the unwillingness of many travelers to do something for the protection of others that is mildly inconvenient.

      • I don’t think any group (FAs or passengers) in general is the problem. It’s individuals choosing to behave badly that is the problem. It’s just as wrong for a passenger to assume an FA is on a power trip for enforcing the rules as it is for an FA to assume a passenger is challenging their authority if they don’t comply IMMEDIATELY without question. The Golden Rule used to the rule. Nowadays it seems like everyone wants to be either a rule maker or a rule breaker.

      • Getting rid of the unsafe and worthless *&$#@ mask wearing (mandate) would eliminate a lot of the passenger behavior issues, sorry for any thread drift.

  3. Such a shame that what was once considered a “glamorous” profession has degraded to a level that requires this kind of training. I wonder if it is having any effect on airlines recruiting replacements. I would not want to do a job like this if I had to fear far my own safety. Violence on an airplane is inexcusable, but on the other hand the last paragraph comment by Mr. Sletten. . .

  4. It’s time to revisit the basics of behavioral economics, and use psychology to anticipate and plan for undesired behavior. The airlines, for one, need to charge more for seats, and then provide seats that are comfortable in a more spacious environment. Second, passengers need to be truly treated as honored guests, and to pay for that privilege. The idea of human mass transit is not synonymous with livestock mass transit. How many travelers get obnoxious on ocean cruises? The airlines race to the bottom by providing increasingly cheaper fear, regardless of the ultimate costs is a significant factor in all of this. Third, airlines are private companies and can make demands beyond payment Enforcing a formal dress code will also improve behavior. When persons are required to dress formally, their behavior is more constrained. Fine dining establishments always recognized this and required a sport coat and tie from all male patrons, to the point of having “extra” ones in the cloak room for those guests who were not suitably attired.
    Continuing to pursue the fantasy of a “free lunch” will not deliver anything more than a fantasy, and if you want to eat, you have to pay.

  5. oops, mistyped a word. line 7, the word “fear” preceded by the word “cheaper”. The word should have been “fare”. sorry.

  6. I sympathize with the sentiment of making flying more exclusive. But to the extent that this does not happen and instead the Majors offer self-defense training: like any other skill this needs to be ongoing. You do not take a few courses in “self defense” and you’re good! As pilots we’re compelled to at the very least to get together with a CFI every two years for a sanity check and flight review. Within that interval we had better have practiced our skills lest we be rather embarrassed when that flight review comes around. What are the Majors doing to keep their FA’s self-defense skills refreshed?

    In a former life I trained with a wonderful “Sensei” (teacher) from whom I earned black-belts in two styles of karate. But that was several years ago at this time. If I were confronted today, the skills that would come out would be those that I practiced the most: nothing at all fancy, a block, kick, punch, all from reptilian muscle memory, which again was obtained through much repetition.

    IMO the advantage that pax have these days is that on any average flight, there will be a cohort of folks who will stand up and oppose a person or maybe a group who are acting out. IMO our collective safety as passengers is better assured these days vs. 9/11 and prior b/c a lot of good people are not going to remain seated and and let one or perhaps a small group of bad actors take over a flight.

  7. They need to change the name ‘flight attendant’ to ‘flight crew’ and treat any attack on them as an attempted hijacking. After a few life sentences the people will behave on planes again.

  8. The timing of this article is a little ironic in that a passenger on a flight yesterday (sorry, don’t remember the airline) had to be physically restrained by the crew. He was drunk, and apparently began groping two flight attendants. When told to desist, he became violent, so the crew, and a couple passengers took a roll of duct tape and literally taped him into his seat. Obviously he was arrested upon landing. A cell phone video shows him wrestling with the flight attendants before he was subdued. Perhaps one solution to the problem is to deny boarding to anyone who is intoxicated, and to stop selling alcohol on flights.

    • Denying boarding to anyone who is intoxicated is already in the FAR’s (91.17 (b)). As far as alcohol service, I would not shed any tears if that was stopped.

      • Apparently the incident has finally prompted the FAA to take some action. They are considering ways to prohibit sale of alcohol on airplanes as well as holding airport vendors responsible for selling alcohol to persons who apprear under the influence. Unfortunately, as usual, the problem is one of economics. Alcohol sales are a large revenue producer for both the airlines and the airport merchants. Perhaps the best solution is to enforce a strict two-drink limit on the plane as well as in the terminals. Plus, they might print on the ticket or notify electronic ticket holders that violation of the policy would result in being placed on the no-fly list. BTW, the incident occurred on a Frontier Airlines flight.