Washington, DC (WorkersCompensation.com) – U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Justice would prioritize prosecuting unruly passengers who commit assaults and other crimes on board aircraft.
The announcement comes after months of increased passenger violence on flights. The Federal Aviation Administration has received more than 5,300 reports of unruly passengers since Jan. 1 of this year, more than the previous 30 years, since records on unruly passengers started being kept, combined. The agency has initiated 227 enforcement cases, with 37 of them referred to the FBI for review. The FAA has levied more than $1.5 million in penalties against passengers for incidents ranging from failure to wear a mask or follow the directions of a flight crew member to assault on crew members.
In August, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson asked airports to work with their concessionaires to stop providing “to go” drinks after the agency determined alcohol was a factor in more than 300 incidents. Major airlines like Southwest stopped providing alcohol on flights.
In June, a passenger on a Southwest flight knocked out two teeth in an altercation with a flight attendant. And in August, a Frontier Airlines passenger had to be duct taped to his seat after he groped two flight attendants and punched another one in the face.
In that same letter, Dickson voiced frustration over law enforcement’s failure to prosecute unruly passengers.
“While FAA has levied civil fines against unruly passengers, it has no authority to prosecute criminal cases,” Dickson wrote in the letter to airports. “Every week, we see situations in which law enforcement was asked to meet an aircraft at the gate following an unruly passenger incident. In some cases, flight attendants have reported being physically assaulted. Nevertheless, many of these passengers were interviewed by local police and released without criminal charges of any kind. When this occurs, we miss a key opportunity to hold unruly passengers accountable for their unacceptable and dangerous behavior.”
Garland said the DOJ would work to prosecute those crimes.
“The Department of Justice is committed to using its resources to do its part to prevent violence, intimidation, threats of violence and other criminal behavior that endangers the safety of passengers, flight crews and flight attendants on commercial aircraft,” Garland said.
He also directed federal, state, local, Tribal and other prosecuting authorities to make prosecuting unruly passengers a priority.
The announcement comes during the middle of the busiest 10 days in the aviation travel. The period between the Friday before Thanksgiving and the Monday after was expected to see an estimated 20 million passengers.
In late October, 32-year-old Arielle Jean Jackson was arrested in Dallas after boarding a Southwest Airlines flight at Love Field. According to police, Jackson got into a verbal argument with two airline employees as she boarded the flight, and continued that argument with a flight agent on the plane. The fight escalated into a physical confrontation when Jackson punched another flight attendant in the head with a closed fist, causing the flight attendant to be taken to the hospital.
“Southwest Airlines maintains a zero-tolerance policy regarding any type of harassment or assault and fully support our employee as we cooperate with local authorities regarding this unacceptable incident,” the airline said in a written statement at the time.
Police were called to the airport where they arrested Jackson and charged her with aggravated assault.
In early November, the FAA levied more than $225,000 in penalties to 10 passengers accused of violent behavior aboard flights. The penalties included $32,000 for a passenger on a Horizon Air flight from Austin to San Francisco who threw trash at a flight attendant; $20,000 for a Delta Air Lines passenger en route from New York to Los Angeles who made physical contact with the flight attendant and yelling profanities at him; to $26,787 for a Southwest Airlines passenger on a flight from New York to Chicago who punched a flight attendant hard enough to require medical attention.
The FAA said it has initiated investigations in more than 1,000 unruly passenger incidents. In comparison, in 2020, there were only 183 investigations, and in 2019, the FAA initiated only 146.