By Daniel Morley
FAA Referring Disruptive Passengers for Criminal Prosecution
The FAA has begun referring cases of disruptive passengers to the FBI and Department of Justice for prosecution. The agency has referred 37 cases of disruptive passengers to the FBI since August. The number of disruptive and unruly passengers has been on the rise this year due to pushback from onboard Covid-19 prevention requirements. A majority of disruptive passenger incidents this year have been due to an unwillingness to comply with the federal face mask mandate.
Currently, the FAA can only impose civil penalties for disruptive passengers. This includes thousands of dollars worth of fines that have been imposed on disruptive passengers. With the FAA passing the cases on to the FBI, the cases can be further investigated and the passengers involved could potentially face criminal penalties. So far the FAA has had 227 cases that have required enforcement action such as fine.
Overall airlines have reported 5,000 unruly passenger incidents this year. Not all of these lead to investigation or action by the FAA and even less will be passed on to the FBI. According to FAA administrator, Stephen Dickinson, only the most egregious cases will be based along for federal prosecution. Of the 5,000 cases, 950 have led to an investigation by the FAA.
Over 3,500 of the unruly passenger incidents this year have been related to noncompliance with the federal mask mandate. The 950 investigations this year is the highest since the FAA began tracking in 1995, on average there are only 136 investigations per year. Flight attendant unions have been pushing for the creation of an industry-wide no-fly list of disruptive passengers. Currently, it is up to the individual airline to ban a passenger from traveling, meaning a disruptive passenger may still be able to travel on another airline.
Airlines and flight attendants have pointed to the return of alcohol service on board as a contributing factor to the rise in disruptive passengers. Both American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have banned the sale of alcohol to most passengers on their domestic flights. As well as banning onboard sales, airline crew members are stepping up the enforcement of a ban on the consumption of alcohol brought on to the flight. Federal regulations prohibit the consumption of alcohol on board a flight unless it is served by a crew member.
The decision to escalate disruptive passenger cases to the FBI is a significant step towards reducing their numbers. The threat of a fine, the highest penalty that the FAA can impose, has only put a slight dent into the number of disruptive passengers. The threat of federal prosecution, including possible jail time, will likely make disruptive passengers think again before becoming a problem in flight.