This is a story about big airlines and tough dilemmas. It's the sort of thing we cover in my free e-book Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines, which you can download here.

Perhaps you sometimes have to deal with difficult customers. Can you imagine what it would be like to deal with them in a crowded metal tube, hurtling through the sky? 

That's one of the challenges that flight attendants at big airlines often face.

Right now, however, as travelers start to return but mask mandates remain in force, things have become wild and even violent--to an extent some experienced flight attendants call "unprecedented."

Among recent reports:

  • Last week, a Southwest Airlines passenger on a flight from Sacramento to San Diego was arrested and charged with assault, after she allegedly punched a flight attendant, "resulting in injuries to the face and a loss of two teeth," according to the head of the union for Southwest flight attendants.
  • A passenger on a Delta Air Lines flight from Honolulu to Seattle who the Federal Aviation Administration says tried to open the cockpit door and assaulted a flight attendant in December was fined $52,000 by the agency.
  • A JetBlue passenger traveling from Fort Lauderdale to Las Vegas in February who allegedly brought his own alcohol onboard, refused to stop drinking it, and kept removing a facemask also faced an FAA fine: $18,500.

"It's completely nuts, and it's a constant combative attitude," Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 flight attendants at United Airlines and several other airlines, said on CNBC. "This is just something we've never seen before." 

The Transportation Security Administration said it screened about two million people on Friday, just before the Memorial Day weekend, about six times as many people as last year, and not that far below the "normal" 2019 number: 2.5 million.

Against that, "[t]his unprecedented number of incidents has reached an intolerable level," echoed Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, which is the union representing Southwest Airlines flight attendants, in an open letter to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly

Montgomery said there had been "477 passenger misconduct incidents on Southwest Airlines" between April 8 and May 15," and she cited the Southwest flight attendant who was assaulted in San Diego as "just one of many occurrences."

So, what can be done? Last week the government announced the significant fines levied against allegedly disruptive passengers (including some of the ones I listed above), along with a warning from Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of Homeland Security.

But besides crackdowns and maybe finding some way to remove some of the politics from public safety debates, the heads of the flight attendant unions and others say there's one thing they really want -- or more to the point, something they don't want: alcohol. 

"We have been asking the government and the airlines to make sure that we're not selling alcohol right now," Nelson said in her interview, "because that is only adding to the problem that is very clearly out of control."

"You can surely understand our concern," Montgomery, the Southwest union head, wrote to Kelly.

On Friday, Southwest Airlines reacted, announcing it has paused plans to restore sales of alcohol on all flights. 

On Saturday, American Airlines announced a similar policy, banning main cabin alcohol sales until September 13, which is when the federal rule requiring passengers to wear masks during interstate travel is set to end.

However, the other two biggest U.S. airlines, Delta and United Airlines, told me on Saturday evening that they had no changes to announce.

From a Delta spokesperson:

No changes to our onboard services including beer, wine, and cocktails for purchase in our main cabin on most domestic flights. Nothing is more important than the safety of our flight crews and customers. And as part of our values-led culture, respect and civility among all are key components of the Delta experience for our customers and people.

Separately, from United:

No changes.

Look, back in the old days (meaning, before March 2020 or so), I sometimes used to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer when I flew. It's too bad that the horrible actions of some passengers have to ruin that little pleasure for others.

It's a small price to pay, though. The bigger issue is simply that some people need to learn to treat other people like people.

Even if you don't fly that often, or you don't deal with anywhere near as many customers as the flight attendants at big airlines do, I think this is a story worth watching.

Once again, we get the chance to watch in real time as the big airlines deal with common business challenges, and make almost every adjustment under the scrutiny of millions of people: analysts, investors, journalists, employees, and passengers.

So, in your business:

  • How do you deal with unruly customers?
  • How do you support your employees?
  • What changes should you make in your policies?

I'll bet that simply paying attention to the variety of responses the airlines come up with here will prompt some really good thought exercises. 

Until then, drink coffee, tea, or water, travel safely, and remember that emotions are running high. Nobody every said this was going to be easy. 

(Don't forget the free e-book Flying Business Class. You can download it here.)