Aviation Festival Americas – Promoting Passenger Safety

Former Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen (April 1, 2022 – June 9, 2023)

Hello everyone. I’m Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen, and I’m honored to speak at Aviation Festival Americas about how the FAA promotes passenger safety.  

A very wise man once said, “Without promotion, something terrible happens….nothing.”

For the FAA, safety promotion means getting the word out to change behaviors. If we do nothing, something terrible certainly could happen. 

When the data shows trends we don’t like, we join the left and right halves of the FAA brain so to speak—our technical experts who have the data with our creative folks who have the communication skills—to come up with innovative ways to get our safety message out.

We take to the airwaves, the media, and social media—YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn—with targeted messaging. While flying is the safest way to travel and emergencies are rare, we arm travelers with safety information they can use before and during their flight.

Now the FAA isn’t in a social media league with Ronaldo or Justin Bieber, but with 1.6 million followers, we do engage with many influencers, stakeholders, and travelers.

Recently we’ve been engaging a great deal about unruly passengers, a phrase that has unfortunately gained new prominence in the American lexicon along with COVID-19. It’s an area where the FAA has done a great deal of safety promotion—we’ve reached millions of travelers through creative videos and images across our social media platforms and through all of the major news outlets.   

While we’ve always had a certain number of unruly passenger incidents every year, it got a lot worse two years ago when passengers were required to begin wearing masks. We immediately began to see an increase in reported events. It was clear that rules were not being followed, putting crews and passengers at risk. 

Alcohol, assaults, and refusal to wear masks were common themes in the incidents. Like the inebriated Frontier Airlines passenger in December 2020 who refused to follow a flight attendant’s instructions, would not wear a mask, and kept arguing with those seated next to him. In a final act of immaturity, he hit the passenger next to him on the head. 

In case you’re wondering, we had the last word. After an investigation, we levied a $20,000 fine on the passenger. 

Unfortunately the unruly passenger phenomena escalated in January 2021, and when the TSA issued its mask mandate based on CDC guidance in early February, it got even worse. 

In 2020, we’d been seeing fewer than three reported unruly passenger incidents per 10,000 flights. But in 2021, the rate more than quadrupled. 

My predecessor, Steve Dickson, took forceful action, announcing a zero-tolerance policy. In the past, the FAA addressed unruly passenger issues using a toolbox of warnings, counseling, and civil penalties. With the new policy, we went right to the hammer—zero tolerance, no warnings, legal action, and fines for any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members. 

In February 2021, we publicized the first fine under the zero-tolerance policy for an unruly passenger—$27,500 for a Delta Air Lines passenger who refused to wear his mask, secure his seat tray table, and fasten his seatbelt before takeoff. In the months that followed, we issued more press releases, all detailing similar egregious behavior. 

There was cause for optimism however—the data showed that the unruly passenger rates were steadily decreasing through the winter and spring of 2021. By early summer, the rates were down, but still not back to 2020 levels. 

Zero tolerance and fines were working, but we needed to do more. The trick was how to get the message out to the people who really needed to see it. 

We put our safety promotion machine into high gear, developing a series of socially relevant and creative social media memes to draw attention to the problem 

We also reached out to some pretty non-traditional media channels—well at least for a federal agency—to get the story out to the people that needed to see it. 

In early summer, we launched the first in what would be a series of Public Service Announcements, taking a cue from the ancient texts… “The young and innocent are often unexpectedly wise.”

We packaged all of the content into a Zero Tolerance for Unruly and Dangerous Behavior toolkit….which you can find at FAA.gov/unruly to keep airports, airlines, our partners like TSA, media, and the public informed. 

The unruly passenger problem didn’t stop, but the rate of incidents continues to drop. When combined with the removal of the mask mandate in April, we are in a much better place today, but we continue to monitor for trends and message where needed. 

The lessons learned from the unruly passenger experience are helping us in other areas, including safety messaging for how and what travelers pack in their suitcases. 

It might seem like a no-brainer, but with Fourth of July coming, we’ll be reminding travelers in the coming weeks that it’s not a good idea—and in fact it’s illegal—to take your fireworks on the plane 

Fireworks are just one of the prohibited hazardous materials that TSA screeners find in carry-on and checked bags, items that could seriously jeopardize the safety of everyone on the plane.

The FAA doesn’t regulate hazardous materials on aircraft—that’s the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration job—but we are responsible for making sure airlines, cargo carriers, and passengers know how to pack and ship goods safely.

So our hazmat safety inspection teams work with PHMSA, the TSA and others, both here and internationally, to scour reports for incidents like fire, smoke, or extreme heat involving lithium batteries. 

That can include laptops and phones going into thermal runaway, or e-cigarettes—vapes—catching fire. 

A few years ago, the data showed a growing number of incidents where the lithium batteries in the vapes were overheating and posing fire risk. That’s why e-cigarettes and vapes were banned from checked bags. While we don’t want any device to overheat, if it’s carried in the cabin, we can at least get to it quickly and extinguish the fire. 

Our data still showed some passengers continued to pack vapes incorrectly, that is, in checked bags. So we developed a social media campaign called “Vapes on a Plane”, alerting passengers to the fire dangers of e-cigarettes and vapes, and showing them the safety precautions they should follow. It’s all part of our “Pack Safe” safety promotion campaign, which is a big part of our response to these types of incidents. 

We regularly push out social media blasts that are timely for the season—like 4th of July and fireworks—and we provide a full roundup of how or if you can carry a wide variety of materials onboard aircraft on our website FAA.gov/go/packsafe.

The good news in all of this is that, at the end of the day, there are far more travelers who follow the rules than don’t, and we appreciate the help. For FAA’s part, we are always watching the data, and we are always promoting so that something great happens—safety. 

If you have more questions about our work with hazardous materials, you have a unique opportunity at the Festival—our experts are in Miami in person. Stop by and see them. 

Thank you for listening.