INDIANAPOLIS — As the world navigates a once-in-a-century pandemic, hundreds of flight attendants faced new turbulence.

“A lot of us don’t feel comfortable coming to work anymore,” detailed Nastassja Lewis, the founder & executive director of th|AIR|apy. “A lot of us have quit because we don’t feel safe because you just never know, ‘Will it be me today?’

Lewis has spent nearly 10 years walking to work through halls, like Indianapolis International Airport’s (IND). But it wasn’t until 2020 that missing a flight didn’t seem so bad.

“When passengers see us, they see us in our beautiful uniforms, just enjoying all these different destinations, but now it’s — they’re seeing us getting our noses broken, our teeth knocked out of our mouth because of the anger,” she said.

Like many fight attendants, the Ball State University alumna is carrying heavy cargo: unruly passengers. Those travelers impact every flyer, from grounding flights to delays to cancellations. On Sunday, February 20, 2022, a United Airlines flight had to return to its gate at IND because a man refused to put on his mask. He was later arrested and charged with trespassing and impersonating an officer, after officials say he claimed to be a contract federal investigators.

Over 25 years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has never seen a spike in violations and investigations like it has during the pandemic. FOX59 found tax dollars were used by the agency to launch nearly 200 investigations in 2020; by 2021, that spiked to nearly 1,100 investigations. In the same year, nearly 6,000 unruly passenger reports were filed, about 72 percent of them for masks.

“We need further action from our airlines and the federal government in order to ensure that flight attendants feel confident in the system and know that if something happens on board someone’s going to have their back,” said Taylor Garland, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA).

The FAA would not interview on camera with FOX59, but released statements to several of our questions, including this:

“If we determine a passenger may have violated a regulation or federal law, we will begin an investigation. If the investigation shows a violation occurred, we take enforcement action.”

“Enforcement. We can’t just do a lot of lip service,” said Lewis, when asked about the industry critiques of prosecutions and punishments of FAA rule violators. “And I feel like a lot of it has been lip service because we see these instances happening and it just goes away. What happens after that?”

FOX59 asked that to the Department of Justice (DOJ), which prosecutes passengers who violate FAA rules. After my repeated requests, the DOJ confirmed it prosecuted only 21 cases in the last fiscal year.
The FAA, though, filed nearly 1,100 investigations in 2021. The Justice Department could not provide immediate data on the number of sentences so FOX59 checked cases and department press releases. We found only one sentence in 2021, a 6 month prison term for an 2019 assault case of 2 flight attendants. We could not find any other sentences for last year.

Both Lewis and Garland say that’s the problem. Lewis explains a lack of consequences for unruly travelers is contributing to poor mental health in aviation.

“We always say if these seats could speak, there’d be a lot of tears shed just a lot of deep talks that have happened on that jump seats,” the mental health advocate said.

The pandemic pushed the Hoosier to do something for her peers. The mental health advocate founded th|AIR|apy, a non-profit dedicated to mental health in aviation. In just months, the Hoosier built on a longtime vision and connected with mental health leaders to launch a 24/7 crisis text line for flight attendants.

The nonprofit reports from Christmas week to the end of January it saw more than 2,000 texts.

“Just this week we had a text saying– a flight attendant saying, ‘I’m having suicidal thoughts,’” Lewis said.

— Nastassja Lewis, th|AIR|apy Founder & Executive Director

Sadly, suicides are more common in the aviation industry compared to many others. Many flight crews say the pandemic stress and fear of attacks amplify that industry reality.

It’s why Lewis and hundreds of others hope passengers know, “We’re not against you! We want all of us to get there safely. We want to protect humanity and make sure that we’re all alive at the end of this.”

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, there is help and resources available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 24/7 and can be reached 800-273-8255. Indiana also has a crisis text line: Text IN to 741741.