More than 1,700 passengers refused to wear masks during flights on Canadian air carriers last year — a problem the union representing many of Canada's flight attendants says is getting worse.
Figures collected by Transport Canada show that 959 of those cases resulted in enforcement action, ranging from warning letters to fines.
Airlines like Air Canada and WestJet say the vast majority of their passengers respect the rules.
WestJet says it has a zero tolerance policy for passengers who refuse to wear masks on board and has banned 163 customers since Sept. 1, 2020 for refusing to respect masking rules — less than 1 per cent of the passengers who flew with the airline during that time period.
Wesley Lesosky is head of the Canadian Union of Public Employees' Airline Division, which represents 14,000 flight attendants with nine Canadian airlines. He said Canadians appear to be tiring of the pandemic and are increasingly ignoring the requirement that they wear masks on board when not eating or drinking.
"We have had incidents that have escalated to a physical nature," he said. "We have had issues of obviously being sworn at, we have had issues of being spit at. We have had issues of just disgruntled people. We have had people [who] are just ticked off with the mask policy."
The problem of passengers flouting COVID rules on planes has been in the spotlight in recent days after passengers on a Sunwing chartered flight from Montreal to Mexico were seen partying and vaping while not wearing masks.
WATCH: Maskless passengers partied on charter flight
Between January and December 2021, Transport Canada received 1,710 reports of passengers refusing to wear masks. In seven cases, passengers were not allowed to board the plane; in 108 cases, passengers who had boarded were ordered to leave the plane.
In the vast majority of those cases — 1,594 — passengers refused to wear masks or to resume wearing them after they had finished eating or drinking.
The figures show the number of incidents began to rise into triple digits in June and July, then stayed high through the fall and into December, reaching a high of 241 in November, compared with only 37 incidents in March.
The number of passengers asked to leave planes after they had boarded also rose in the autumn, with a high of 18 cases in September and a low of two cases in March.
Fines can range up to $5,000
More fines were levied in the spring than in the fall. Of the 30 fines issued over the course of 2021, 24 were issued between January and June.
In 2020, the highest fine issued amounted to between $1,501 and $2,000. Transport Canada has not yet responded to questions from CBC News about the size of the fines handed out in 2021.
In theory, those who break the rules more than once could face fines of up to $5,000. Incidents involving aggravating factors, such as abusive language or threats of physical violence, could also result in criminal charges.
Over the course of 2021, passengers received 428 warning letters — which can lead to higher penalties for subsequent offences. Passengers also received 501 letters of non-compliance for not wearing masks when they were supposed to.
Masking rules weren't the only pandemic measures being flouted by air passengers last year.
'It's definitely getting worse'
Between October and December, there were 1,058 cases of passengers failing to provide proof of vaccination, 27 cases of false or misleading vaccination reports and two cases in December of validated false or misleading reports of vaccination status.
"We hear that from pretty much all our unionized airlines in Canada that it's definitely getting worse," Lesosky said.
He said the mask rules mean extra work for his members — particularly since passengers are allowed to remove their masks to eat or drink.
"We're constantly having to be mask police, we're constantly having to ask them to put their mask on, we're constantly having follow up with them to put their masks on," he said. "Then, on the other hand, we're serving them meals and drinks to remove their mask."
Lesosky said airlines could reduce the amount of food and beverages flight attendants are expected to serve on board, reducing the number of opportunities for passengers to remove their masks.
Most passengers comply, say airlines
Madison Kruger, media relations adviser for WestJet, said the vast majority of its passengers have been respecting the pandemic regulations.
"WestJetters have been working diligently to keep our operation safe throughout the pandemic and while unruly situations do occur, these incidents are isolated and do not reflect the commendable efforts of the majority of our guests who have done an exceptional job adhering to evolving travel rules and regulations," Kruger said.
Air Canada said most of its passengers understand the importance of wearing masks to protect themselves, other travellers and the airline's employees.
"In the relatively rare instances of non-compliance, we fully support our employees in enforcing the rules and we report these cases to Transport Canada, whose role it is to determine penalties for contravening government regulations," the airline said in a statement.
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