Airline Groups Want DOJ to Quickly Prosecute ‘Unruly Passengers’

Liz Carey

Washington, D.C. ( – Airlines for America, the industry group for the largest airlines in the country, joined a coalition of aviation partners to request U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland quickly prosecute airline passengers who engage in “unruly behavior.”

In a letter also sent to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Steve Dickson, a group of nine aviation groups asked that the DOJ take on the most “heinous cases.”

“The undersigned organizations, representing aviation industry stakeholders including passenger carriers, pilots and flight attendants, write today to express our heightened concern regarding the substantial increase in and growing escalation of passengers’ unruly and disruptive behavior onboard aircraft, particularly toward crewmembers,” the June 21 letter said. “These incidents pose a safety and security threat to our passengers and employees, and we respectfully request that the Department of Justice commit to the full and public prosecution of onboard acts of violence.”

Since Jan. 1, 2021, the FAA has received more than 3,100 reports of unruly behavior and opened 465 investigations into assaults, threats of assault or interference with crewmembers, the coalition said. FAA has pursued enforcement actions in more than 400 cases as of May. In comparison, in 2019, the agency pursued 146 enforcement actions in all of 2019.

On Tuesday, the FAA proposed civil penalties ranging from $9,000 to $22,000 for eight passengers accused of unruly behavior. The cases included incidents from assaulting flight crew, drinking alcohol brought on board and refusing to wear a facemask. So far this year, the FAA has proposed $563,800 in fines against unruly passengers.

The June 22 proposed penalties included one for $21,000 for a passenger who refused to wear his mask on a Feb. 22 Southwest Airlines flight from Dallas to Albuquerque. According to the FAA, the passenger refused to wear his facemask before and after boarding the aircraft. Despite flight attendants and the captain repeatedly asking him to wear his mask, resulting in the captain returning the aircraft from the runway to the gate. A customer service supervisor boarded the aircraft to escort the passenger off. At that point, the passenger threw a mask he had been provided at the supervisor and hit him in the jaw. The passenger was ultimately arrested at the airport by the Dallas Police.

The continued attacks threaten the safety of aviation employees, Airline for America said. And to stop them, the federal government must step up and enforce laws already on the books.

“We especially appreciate FAA’s ongoing efforts to investigate incidents, levy civil penalties for passengers’ behavior that interferes with crewmembers and publicize its enforcement actions,” the letter said. “However, we ask that more be done to deter egregious behavior, which is in violation of federal law and crewmember instruction. Specifically, the federal government should send a strong and consistent message through criminal enforcement that compliance with federal law and upholding aviation safety are of paramount importance.”

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants labor union told CNN the situation is “out of control.”

“We are hearing from flight attendants who are saying I’m concerned about going to work now,” she said. “This is so pervasive in our workplace that I’m concerned about going to work — I’m actually afraid to go to work.”

Nelson said TSA self-defense courses for flight attendants, that is currently voluntary, should be part of their paid, mandatory training provided by the airlines.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) plans to introduce legislation before the end of this month that would “cover abusive passenger behavior on board flights” and against TSA officers, his spokesman Chip Unruh told CNBC.

And last week, in a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, U.S. Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the committee, and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas what his agency is doing to address the unruly behavior and assaults on planes and at airports.

“We also have prepared federal air marshals to address any act of violence that they themselves observe while on flights,” Mayorkas said. “Importantly, we are working with law enforcement to ensure that these acts are met with the full force of federal law. These individuals who commit these heinous acts are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

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