The rise of unruly passengers is getting out of hand. If the airline industry and government want to nip it in the bud, more aggressive prosecution is needed. Period.
As Labor Day weekend approaches, unruly airline passenger cases are spiraling out of control despite repeated efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to levy fines and dispel this behavior. Criminal prosecutions for disrupting flights seem to be the missing ingredients in lowering these incidents.
Since adopting a zero-tolerance policy that implemented stricter law enforcement for unruly passengers in January, FAA fines issued for unruly flyers have topped $1 million. Besides being a crime, the agency said unruly behavior is a safety issue.
While leveling fines are suitable for accountability and hitting someone in the pocket where it counts, it doesn’t seem to be having any effect in slowing down the rise of dangerous behavior at airports and in airplanes. This year alone, one in five flight attendants reports having had altercations with unruly passengers.
How unruly do passengers have to get before the prosecuting arm of the federal government steps in to charge passengers for their bad behavior?
“Interference with flight crew members is a federal crime that deserves the attention of law enforcement,” a Justice Department spokesperson said in an email to Skift.
A security expert who requested anonymity to speak freely with Skift on this matter said the U.S. government rarely prosecutes unruly passengers, despite interfering with a crew member being a federal crime. Instead, he said the FAA pursues civil penalty action.
The U.S. Department of Justice said it had filed charges in federal district courts for 16 defendants in the first 10 months of this fiscal year, matching the total number of unruly passengers federally charged the previous year.
In 2019, before the pandemic gripped the travel industry, Justice charged 20 passengers for unruly behavior, it said.
But compared to the 4,090 cases of unruly passengers reported to the FAA as of August and the disruption it causes airlines, is filing charges for 16 individuals enough?
“As with any case, we exercise prosecutorial discretion in deciding which cases to charge federally,” said the Justice spokesperson.
While the FAA has been actively investigating cases and recommending fines for enforcement, the agency’s hands are tied. It does not have prosecutorial abilities, relying instead on federal, local, state and airport law enforcement assistance to charge unruly passengers.
“We are doing everything within our legal authority to deter this conduct and address it forcefully when it occurs. We also are working closely with other stakeholders to address this problem,” an FAA spokesman said.
The agency’s latest push is the release of a “You Don’t Want Your Pilots Distracted: Unruly Behavior Doesn’t Fly” YouTube video with a compilation of chaotic cockpit audio of unruly passenger incidents with the sounds of screaming in the cabin while the pilot declares an emergency. The FAA said these types of incidents are a distraction to pilots and unsafe.
They are not the only ones concerned unruly behavior is detrimental to both flight and crew safety. The lack of criminal enforcement is leading airlines, unions to ask for help.
In a joint coalition letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in June, Airlines for America (A4A), an industry trade group representing several major U.S. airlines, asked Justice to “send a strong and consistent message through criminal enforcement that compliance with federal law and upholding aviation safety are of paramount importance.”
The Justice Department said factors in deciding whether or not to prosecute unruly passengers include the egregiousness of the offense, the victim impact, were lives in danger, and mental health.
Before prosecuting unruly passenger behavior, other components the Justice Department considers are whether the plane had to make an unscheduled landing, if it’s a repeat offense, and if there are any other mitigating factors.
“The Department of Justice must utilize existing statute to conduct criminal prosecution to respond to these incidents, especially physical incidents,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
Besides the Justice Department not prosecuting more cases, the jurisdictional challenges for law enforcement responding to unruly passengers may be another factor more misbehaving passengers aren’t facing criminal charges.
For example, interfering with crew members is a federal offense, but airport police and local law enforcement can only enforce local or state laws.
The anonymous security expert said depending on where the incident occurs and its nature, airport law enforcement may only be able to investigate and turn the case over to the FBI.
In some instances, even when assaulted crew members do not stay around to press charges, he said. When that happens, besides conducting a cursory investigation, airport law enforcement doesn’t have many options.
On the other hand, the expert said any violations occurring on airport grounds could face criminal prosecution under local or state laws.
The difference and possibly the disconnect for the various law enforcement agencies responding to airports is that once the aircraft door closes and the plane leaves the jetway, any unruly behavior or disruptions fall under federal jurisdiction.
“Enforcement of this critical safety statute should be consistent and
vigorous across all jurisdictions within the United States,” A4A said.
In its letter to Justice, A4A said it believes the government is well equipped to prosecute disruptive and unruly behavior on planes.
Public and successful criminal prosecutions, including imprisonment, would fulfill Congress’ intent in making safety the highest priority in air commerce, it said.
The FAA said all stakeholders are responsible for taking care of the traveling public and aviation industry employees who have placed their trust in them.
As industry stakeholders continue working behind the scenes to improve criminal prosecutions of unruly behavior, A4A said it is grateful to the FAA for increasing awareness, supporting A4A, and enforcing its zero-tolerance policy.
The Justice Department said interference with a flight crew is a serious crime that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
What’s missing is a strong public show of criminal prosecutions to deter future unruly behavior and possibly an Act of Congress.
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Photo credit: The U.S. Justice Department is serving justice on some unruly passengers. North Charleston / WikiMedia Commons