Flight attendants learning self-defense as violent passenger incidents rise

Newark-based United flight attendants Laurie Bostian-Geary and Cris Mendes restrained a couple of federal air marshals, Wednesday morning, bending the seated men over and pinning them in their seats, practicing how they as flight attendants might then zip-tie or handcuff the men were they violent passengers on a real airplane and not instructors teaching self-defense inside a Homeland Security training gym in a nondescript office park in New Jersey.

"It’s not this aikido where you’re using pressure points and things like that. It’s more just basic self-defense that anyone can use," Newark Field Office Supervisory Air Marshal in Charge Jay Koury said.

Koury used to offer this class -- started in 2004 -- once a quarter. This year, the marshals have taught it every month, in locations all across the country, to classrooms full of flight attendants.

"I think the masks have brought up a lot of conflict," Bostian-Geary said.

"I think people are a little bit crazier," Mendes said.

With the FAA reporting nearly five times more incidents of unruly passengers in the first eight months of 2021 than in all of 2019, Mendes said she fears those she serves more now than at any other time during her 25 years of flying.

"You never know what’s going to come your way, you know?" Mendes said.

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A team of Newark-based air marshals spent four hours Wednesday teaching Mendes and a half dozen or so other flight attendants palm strikes, hammer fists, eye-gouging, blocking techniques, verbal judo and proper fighting stances for physical interactions in what the marshals called "a linear environment."

"I wanted to do this to feel more confident in my abilities to protect myself," Bostian-Geary said.

Bostian-Geary sought these skills not only for neutralizing any knuckleheads in the air -- whom, she admitted, seasoned flight attendants can recognize very early into a flight ("As soon as they get onboard," she said.) -- but also for interactions during time off the plane between international flights.

"Layovers in Paris," she said, "where I’ve been confronted, even just as recently as August."

The marshals stressed to these flight attendants with zero self-defense training prior to that morning's class that they would not leave the facility that afternoon as ninjas able to defeat any foe in single combat, but instead would need to continue practicing their striking and blocking, and if tangling with someone in a situation that warranted force, should not seek to K.O. the passenger on their own but instead buy themselves time until others -- fellow flight attendants, able-bodied passengers and/or air marshals -- could arrive to help with the restraining.

"I’m going to feel ready," Bostian-Geary said.