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Unruly passengers add dread to MIA’s holiday forecast as police target airport bars

·3 min read

Miami International Airport expects to hit two records this holiday season, one of them welcome.

Airlines expect to sell more Miami tickets than ever this winter, wiping away MIA’s pandemic travel slump even as international flights continue to severely lag 2019 levels. With U.S. travel restrictions lifting next month on 39 countries for vaccinated travelers, MIA expects a surge in foreign arrivals, too.

At the same time, police at MIA are reporting more trouble than ever, with “unruly passenger” incidents up nearly 300 percent from before the pandemic hit.

“Sadly, we’re seeing these incidents more and more,” said Ralph Cutié, Miami-Dade County’s aviation director, a position that oversees MIA and the other county-owned airports.

Mask mandates are at the center of a rash of passenger conflicts in Miami and across the country, according to reports tracking the “unruly” incidents.

The Federal Aviation Administration said that about 75% of the more than 4,800 incidents reported nationwide this year stemmed from someone not wanting to wear a mask, a common rule for air travel since the pandemic began and now mandated in planes and airports under the Biden administration.

MIA sees spike in unruly passengers

So far in 2021, MIA reported 365 “unruly passenger incidents” — defined as police having to intervene with a traveler — compared to 97 in all of 2019. And that’s with passenger arrivals and departures still slightly depressed, with the latest numbers from October showing flights off about 10% from the fall of 2019.

Incidents that made headlines included an unmasked man throwing punches near his gate after being turned away from his flight, a Frontier Airlines passenger taped to his seat on a Miami-bound flight after assaulting flight attendants and a man popping the emergency-exit door on an American Airlines flight on the MIA tarmac and walking onto the wing.

Greg Chin, a spokesperson for MIA, said airlines are projecting flights over the holiday season to exceed levels from 2019, which was a record-setting year.

With even more passengers traveling through the airport, MIA managers are mulling how to tamp down on conflicts in the terminals, too. That could include a new set of holiday travel tips relating to passenger conflicts, including a plea to travelers to report bad behavior instead of livestreaming it.

“When you see someone getting agitated, instead of filming it for social media, that’s when you should be looking for someone in uniform,” Chin said.

He said MIA is considering a public service campaign reminding passengers they can call 911 to summon police anywhere in the airport.

Police patrolling airport bars at MIA

The holiday messaging also will focus on long-standing federal rules banning outside alcohol on planes — a newly relevant restriction after many airlines halted drink service during the pandemic.

Drinks remain available inside MIA, and airport police are patrolling airport bars more frequently. In a meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board on Thursday, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said MIA has begun “last call patrols” to spot inebriated passengers.

Levine Cava said part of the messaging will encourage passengers to behave to avoid travel delays. The campaign is “to remind people they can get to their destination faster if they just use these rules and precautions,” she said.

Chin said MIA will still remind passengers of the standard holiday advisories on arriving two to three hours early and utilizing online check-in options. Advice on mitigating passenger fury would be added to those.

“We’ll have our usual tips,” he said. “But, unfortunately, that’s also something we’ll need to make people aware of as well.”

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