The stunning news from the story about the American Airlines flight attendant who was punched in the face by a passenger is that the altercation may not have been related to the mask requirement for airline travel. 

I’m not sure this suggests progress of any kind. The flight attendant had to be hospitalized in order to treat several broken bones in her face. The CEO of American Airlines called the attack “one of the worst displays of unruly behavior we’ve ever witnessed.”

But if it’s true that masks weren’t involved — and a few passengers have apparently contradicted the official explanation — it could herald a stunning return to what passed as pre-pandemic normalcy. Yes, it would simply be routine ugly behavior rather than the expected COVID-19-related ugly behavior, which has become a staple of American life, most often seen when shopping, indoor-restaurant dining, during airplane travel and, of course, at school board meetings.

Mike Littwin

As you know, the cross-country flight from New York to Orange County, California, had to be diverted to Denver so that the alleged puncher could be removed. As I write this on Friday, it’s not clear whether he has been taken into custody. The man identified in the assault had already been duct-taped to his seat — which reminds me of a pre-pandemic airplane-fight story I was involved in, which I’ll get to in a bit — before being taken off the plane.

We know about masks. We know about the bizarre, often violent behavior associated with being forced — in an assault on, uh, freedom — to wear a face covering as part of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed more than 700,000 American lives. And which, to the surprise of many, is flaring again in Colorado, where we are in near-crisis mode as the scarcity of ICU hospital beds has become a statewide issue.

According to the count kept by the New York Times, Colorado has the fastest growth rate of COVID cases in the country. We’re No. 1? Most states near the top of the list for infections are near the bottom of the list in the percentage of people who have been vaccinated. Colorado is somewhere in the upper middle, but the new leaders in cases and hospitalizations are mostly western states.

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I’m old enough to remember when mandate-hesitant Jared Polis said any new actions on his part would be dictated by a concern that hospitals might be overrun. Polis is prepared to call in FEMA and possibly even allow hospitals to ration care, but there’s no indication that he’s ready to return to mask mandates or, you can be sure, to begin any vaccine mandates. Although Polis is adamantly pro-mask and pro-vaccine, he insists localities are best able to set their own rules.

We’ve seen how that is playing out in Douglas County, where, in one of the stranger COVID stories of the day, county officials are battling the school district in court over school mask requirements. When vaccines soon become available for those aged 5 to 11, it will lead to fewer cases and, almost certainly, more fights.

But back to planes. According to the president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the altercation began when a flight attendant bumped into a passenger seated in first class. Although the flight attendant apparently apologized, the passenger left his seat to confront her in the airplane’s galley, where he punched her in the face.

Even if it’s not directly mask related, it’s probably indirectly related. According to the FAA, so-called “unruly behavior” has, well, taken off during the pandemic. Of 5,000 cases, 3,500 have been related to mask wearing. The Washington Post reports that the FAA is currently investigating 923 such incidents. In 2019, a record-setting year for airline travel, the FAA says it investigated 146 such cases, mostly, we can guess, involving booze.

My story, which is more my wife Susie’s story, took place 30-some years ago when I worked for the Los Angeles Times, which then, as incredible as it seems now, allowed reporters to fly first class. I was in first class on a flight from New York to L.A. along with my upgraded wife and daughter — airplane miles being so much easier and cheaper to use back then. Susie was seated next to a man who had been on a 24-hour nightmare trip of flights canceled for weather and/or airplane issues. For his troubles, he had been upgraded to first class, where, of course, the booze flows freely.

Eventually, the flight attendant had to cut off the man, who had been telling Susie stories of his time in Vietnam and of the flashbacks he was still experiencing. Because she was listening with obvious sympathy, the man began begging her to order a drink for him. When she refused, he became abusive, cursing and threatening her. And so, Susie and I traded seats. And when the man began cursing at me because I wouldn’t order him a drink, I told him that I was sorry for all his troubles, but that if he continued, I’d have to notify a flight attendant.

He did continue. And although I’m not normally a snitch, I did notify a flight attendant, who asked us both to come to the galley, where the captain met us, presumably leaving a co-pilot to fly the plane. As I began telling my side of the story, the offending passenger, growing ever more enraged, took a swing at me. Yes, an actual swing. Fortunately, he was mightily drunk by that time — I’m pretty sure he was smashed when he boarded the plane — and I easily dodged his slow-moving right cross.

That’s when several flight attendants sprang into action, restraining the passenger before guiding him back to his seat and wrapping him, cocoon-like, in duct tape. I watched in something approaching awe. This was in the pre-cell-phone era so I don’t have photographic evidence, but after the cocooning, he promptly fell asleep for the remainder of the flight.

As we landed in Los Angeles, the lead flight attendant offered us six bottles of wine as an apology and, I guess, in the hope of avoiding a lawsuit. We gladly accepted the wine. And it being a much simpler time, we didn’t have any masks to remove in order to ask if they also had some cheese.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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