Incidents of unruly passengers aloft continue to rise despite stepped up enforcement and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines levied. Criminal charges and prison time could be next if airlines and unions get their way.
A Southwest Airlines flight attendant was punched by a passenger unwilling to follow pre-landing procedures. Several Delta Air Lines flights were forced to divert and land mid-flight to remove disruptive passengers from the aircraft. A passenger was detained upon landing after causing a disturbance on an American Airlines flight.
All of these incidents occurred in just the past three weeks amid a disconcerting rise in unruly — even violent — behavior by passengers aboard U.S. flights. Incidents have become so problematic that several airlines have stopped serving alcohol onboard flights in an effort to stop disruptive behavior before it starts.
Now, industry trade groups Airlines for America (A4A) and the Regional Airlines Association (RAA), as well as eight of the largest aviation labor unions, are asking Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department to criminally prosecute new cases of disruptive behavior. Penalties could range from a fine to as much as 20 years in prison.
“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,” the groups said in a letter to Garland on Monday.
The request comes as the number of people taking to the sky in the U.S. is at its highest since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020. Domestic passenger numbers were down just 22 percent compared to 2019 during the week ending June 15, the latest A4A data shows. And the average percentage of seats filled on U.S. flights was 83.3 percent — just six points shy of where it was two years ago.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has received more than 3,000 reports of unruly behavior — roughly 2,300 related to masks alone — onboard commercial flights since the beginning of the year, according to reports. Of these, the agency has issued more than $368,000 in civil penalties against individual travelers — a staggering amount for such a short period of time.
The fines are part of the special emphasis enforcement program that FAA Administrator Steve Dickson unveiled in January in response to a dramatic rise in disturbances. The move followed the siege at the U.S. Capitol that saw rioters break into both chambers of Congress and force legislators from the building or into hiding on January 6.
“When you’re at 35,000 feet, it’s kind of a little bit late to deal with these kind of altercations,” Paul Hartshorn Jr., a flight attendant at American and representative of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said in January. He, and other union leaders, said clear messaging that travelers need to comply with crew member instructions and wear masks from the country’s leaders, as well as stepped up enforcement, was needed.
But, despite the increased enforcement and aggressive use of civil fines, incidents continue to occur.
“We recognize that mask compliance is an increasingly challenging issue for our frontline,” said Delta executives Kristen Manion Taylor, senior vice president of in-flight service, Eric Phillips, senior vice president of airport customer service and cargo, and Patrick Burns, vice president and system chief pilot, in a letter to staff on June 3 viewed by Skift. They said that the airline was working with A4A to “determine the best path forward” to address disruptive passengers.
That path appears to be the decision to join with other airlines and unions to push the attorney general to pursue criminal charges instead of just civil penalties in disruption cases. In addition to harsher punishments, criminal charges could — if they are a felony — remain on a person’s record for life.
“The rules are the rules. I don’t care if you wear a blue hat or red hat, wear your mask and be nice to the flight attendants,” one American Airlines pilot told passengers onboard a recent flight hrtfdguy tweeted on June 20.
— Additional reporting by Skift Contributor Ruthy Muñoz.
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Photo credit: Airlines and unions want criminal penalties to cut down on inflight disturbances. Edward Russell / Skift