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Increase in unruly and maskless airplane passengers
01:38 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

It feels as if every day we read about another disorderly passenger on a commercial flight. But in reality, the numbers are even worse than that. Since January, the Federal Aviation Administration recorded approximately 2,900 reports of “unruly behavior by passengers” – which comes out to almost 18 incidents per day.

Dean Obeidallah

For perspective, this is nearly 20 times higher than what’s normally recorded in an entire year. As the head of one of the flight attendants unions recently explained, there has been a “constant combative attitude” by some passengers that has alarmingly led to flight attendants being attacked and injured. Just last month, a passenger punched a Southwest flight attendant in the face, knocking out two of her teeth.

Are we just becoming more brutish as a people? Has the isolation caused by Covid-19 restrictions made us less civil? Perhaps. But one other fact about these incidents tells us there may be something else likely contributing to the aggression: Trumpism.

As the FAA has reported, of the 2,900 incidents of unruliness, about 2,200 of those reports involved passengers “refusing to comply with the federal facemask mandate.”

Who was it who publicly mocked people for wearing masks? Oh yeah, Donald Trump. There are numerous examples of the former president publicly ridiculing people for masking up after the US Centers for Disease Control announced guidelines in April 2020 urging us all to wear them to prevent the spread of the virus. In May 2020, Trump ridiculed a reporter during a press conference for wearing a mask, claiming the reporter was only doing so “to be politically correct.” Trump also mocked then-candidate Joe Biden for modeling responsible behavior by wearing a mask in public. Trump even slammed Fox News Laura Ingraham at an October 2020 campaign rally for wearing a mask, accusing her of “being very politically correct.”

It’s true that Trump did occasionally make a few – just a few – pro-mask comments. But now, even with Trump out of office, some of his most visible supporters have continued their war on face coverings. One of the most despicable has been GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who last month compared House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s requirement that members of Congress wear a mask when on the House floor to the Nazis forcing Jews to wear “gold” stars during the Holocaust.

Some GOP governors, like South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, made it a badge of honor, deciding not to impose a mask mandate in their states. While not making incendiary comments like Greene, Noem shared a photo in January 2021 of herself in a crowded room of people not wearing masks.

In March, various Idaho GOP elected officials, including the state’s lieutenant governor, joined with supporters to publicly burn masks, equating the act to the Boston Tea Party. (How the colonists protesting Britain’s tax on tea is related to wearing a mask to protect the health of others is only something the mask burners can explain.) And in early June, Ohio GOP Senate candidate Josh Mandel, who has dubbed himself “Trump’s number one ally in Ohio,” burned his mask in a video he tweeted out with the word “freedom.”

This is not about freedom. It’s about selfishness. Trumpism is many things from White nationalism to cruelty, but it’s also a celebration of a toxic form of egotism. Wearing a mask has been about protecting others from the virus, especially given that asymptomatic people can carry and spread the disease. As the CDC guidelines explained, “Masks work best when everyone wears one.” But that means nothing to those who have no regard for the health of their fellow Americans.

It’s impossible to know with certainty how many of the 2,200 incidents of passengers becoming unruly over masks are Trump supporters. What is clear is that President Joe Biden has set an example, repeatedly urging people to wear masks and doing so himself until the CDC announced in May that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to do so in certain situations.

We also know that some who have caused in-flight disturbances when asked to wear masks are self-identified Trump supporters For example, in January two women wearing pro-Trump hats were asked to leave the plane after refusing to put on masks. One of them directed the n-word a several times at a Black passenger as she left the cabin.

In October, another Trump supporter was escorted off a flight for refusing the flight attendant’s repeated request to put his mask over his mouth and nose—but he had no problem wearing his pro-Trump hat. And in April, GOP Alaska State Sen. Lora Reinbold was banned indefinitely from Alaska Airlines for “her continued refusal” to comply with airline employees requests that she wear a mask.

Even beyond mask incidents, other self-professed Trump supporters in January projected a large Trump logo on the interior of the airplane’s cabin mid-flight while some shouted obscenities at other passengers who objected.

Disturbingly, we can likely expect more incidents involving anti-maskers on planes given that the Transportation Security Administration recently extended the face mask requirement at airports and on board commercial aircraft through September 13.

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    These mask haters should know that the penalty for those who engage in unruly behavior could be far more than being just escorted off a flight. The FAA’s “zero-tolerance” policy for such conduct has resulted in the agency seeking fines of $9,000 to $15,000 against individual passengers.

    The question is, will the risk of hefty fines trump the selfishness inspired by Trumpism? We can only hope so for the safety of the flight crews and fellow passengers. But despite Trump no longer being in the White House, we can expect we will be dealing with the lingering toxicity of his legacy for the near future — if not longer.