CALGARY — After more than a year of bare bones inflight service due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians travelling by air can once again enjoy snacks, hot meals or a glass of wine on the plane.
But this return to a degree of normalcy — while welcomed by many — is also making it harder for airlines to enforce rules around mask-wearing and may be contributing to a recent uptick in unruly passenger behaviour, according to a flight attendants' union.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees — which represents more than 15,000 flight attendants at nine different Canadian airlines, including WestJet, Air Canada and Transat — says passenger disobedience, rudeness and aggressive behaviour is on the rise and jeopardizing the health and well-being of airline employees.
CUPE National senior officer for health and safety Troy Winters said many of the problems stem from passengers who refuse to obey the federal requirement to wear a face mask on board, a problem he said has grown worse since the summer, when airlines began reintroducing food and beverage service.
"Even before they brought back the return to some level of service, we’d have people who would bring on a coffee. And then they’d sit there, and they’d sip that coffee for an hour and a half," Winters said.
"This has kind of been the trick people have been using to not wear their masks on the plane since the mandate was introduced, so restoring food and beverage service has definitely made it worse."
According to Transport Canada, incidences of passenger non-compliance with the mask mandate spiked over the summer. Airlines reported 330 passengers to the regulator for refusing to wear a mask during July and August, more than twice the number of incidents reported in April and May.
"For flight attendants, it's the stress of having to be the mask police, and knowing the only reason you’re going down this aisle is someone is doing something they shouldn’t and you’re going to have some level of conflict,” Winters said.
Winters said Transport Canada needs to do more to address the issue. The regulator's official guidance is still that airlines should limit non-essential tasks, including inflight service. Winters said the regulator should take a stricter stance on enforcing that guidance, at least on short flights, or else set a limit on the amount of time a passenger can have their mask off to eat and drink.
WestJet Airlines Ltd. spokeswoman Morgan Bell said in an emailed statement the airline has issued 118 travel bans against passengers for refusing to wear a mask since the Calgary-based airline introduced its "zero tolerance" policy in September of 2020. But she said WestJet does not believe reintroducing inflight service is a driving factor.
"The reality is a lot of travellers are out of travel practice and haven’t been on an airplane in more than 19 months, which we believe speaks more to the challenges and small percentage of unruly situations we are encountering," Bell said.
Not all flight attendants believe food and beverage service is driving the problems, either. Chris Rauenbusch, an active cabin crew employee with WestJet and president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 4070, said a lack of expected creature comforts can actually cause passengers to lash out.
“Prior to (the restoration of inflight service) there were a lot of tempers flaring because of lack of ability to buy an alcoholic drink, lack of food choices,” Rauenbusch said.
In an emailed statement, Montreal-based Air Canada said food and beverage service is an important aspect of customers' "travel journey." The airline pointed out passengers were already bringing their own food and beverages to consume on board during earlier stages of the pandemic.
"Our flight attendants are professionals who ensure all customers on board can partake of food and beverages while adhering to all required safety protocols," the statement said.
Barry Prentice, an expert in transportation economics at the University of Manitoba, said he is curious what will happen to the mask mandate after Nov. 1, at which point Canadian air travellers will be required by the federal government to be double-vaccinated.
"If everyone you are flying with is double-vaxxed, and if the air filtration in the cabin is as good as they say it is, what's the benefit of being masked?" Prentice said.
In the meantime, Prentice said he thinks denying passengers basic levels of service could backfire.
"For a lot of people this (flying in a pandemic) is a very stressful environment, and to the degree that a cup of coffee or a cookie can help to calm people down, I think there's some merit in it," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2021.
Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press