Skift Take

Will the threat of prosecution and enhanced communication between governmental agencies help curb the epidemic of unruly passenger behavior? Who knows? But at least it's finally a move in the right direction.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland earlier this week directed federal prosecutors ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday travel surge to prioritize prosecuting federal crimes occurring on commercial airlines and endangering the lives of passengers and flight crews.  

The change comes amidst a troubling rise of unruly passenger behaviors that have resulted in injuries to flight attendants and costly disruptions to airline operations.

“Passengers who assault, intimidate or threaten violence against flight crews and flight attendants do more than harm those employees; they prevent the performance of critical duties that help ensure safe air travel,” said Attorney General Garland.

The announcement was greeted with an “it’s about time,” from Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA). She recently spoke at Skift Global Forum and has been very vocal about the impact of unruly passengers on flight attendants, taking their plight all the way to Congress.  

Nelson said consequences need to be swift and straightforward to keep travel safe and protect the people on the frontlines who have worked through all the stresses of this pandemic.

An example of the rising air rage is the recent physical assault of a male Allegiant Airlines flight attendant by a female passenger on Sunday. The attack left the flight attendant with two bruised ribs and a knee injury requiring a knee brace, a spokesperson for the Trasport Workers Union representing the flight attendant said.  

“Similarly, when passengers commit violent acts against other passengers in the close confines of a commercial aircraft, the conduct endangers everyone aboard,” said Attorney General Garland.

Of the 5,338 unruly passenger incidents reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as of November 23, 2021, there have only been 266 enforcement cases launched so far.  

The disconnect between the high number of disruptive behavior — over 4,000 two months ago — and the prosecution of only a dismal 16 cases was concerning enough for Skift to call into question why the Department of Justice (DOJ) was not charging more unruly passengers.

In the memorandum sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and U.S. Attorneys on Wednesday, Attorney General Garland announced a new information-sharing protocol between the DOJ and the FAA to facilitate a notification of criminal behavior occurring onboard any commercial aircraft.  

“The unacceptable disruptive behavior that we’re seeing is a serious safety threat to flights, and we’re committed to our partnership with the DOJ to combat it,” said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson.  

The new protocol is working with dozens of cases being referred to the FBI by the FAA, the memo said.  

As of Monday, the latest time the FAA released the number of fines levied on passengers for unruly behavior, there have been $387,000 in fines set against unruly passengers in November alone.

Broken down, over $225,000 in penalties were for alleged assault-related behaviors, and the remaining ones this month are for incidents involving alleged alcohol-related unruly passenger behavior.  

Currently, the FAA has referred 37 cases to the FBI, an FAA spokesperson said in an email to Skift.  

“We want to take people to New Orleans, Seattle, Fort Lauderdale, or to see Grandma. We do not want to take them to jail. But, the DOJ can now make it clear that’s where you’re going if you refuse to cooperate and act out violently on a plane. Straight to jail without passing GO,” Nelson said.

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Tags: doj, faa, sara nelson, unruly passengers

Photo credit: Prosecuting unruly airline passengers is expected to become a greater priority for the U.S. government. OrnaW / Pixabay

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