AAmid a growing epidemic of violence and disruptive incidents on planes, government officials and the airline industry are calling for criminal clampdowns. The Federal Aviation Authority and the airlines have unfortunately been unable to stop the rise of air rage in the hostile skies. Can the Department of Justice do better?
So far in 2021, the FAA has received approximately 4,385 reports of unruly passenger behavior, including 3,199 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal face mask mandate, which will remain in place until January 2022. According to one Recent survey of flight attendants, over 85% had encountered unruly passengers in the first half of 2021.
Among the most egregious incidents: last December, a Delta Air Lines passenger attempted to open the cockpit door in mid-flight and hit a flight attendant in the face before being restrained by crew members and another passenger. On an Alaska Airlines flight in March, a Colorado man who refused to wear a face mask hit a flight attendant, then stood up and urinated in his seat. In May, a Southwest Airlines passenger smashed the teeth of a flight attendant after being ordered to keep her seat belt fastened.
On Monday, two senior U.S. senators sent letters to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) Administrator Steve Dickson, calling on agencies to prosecute the worst offenders.
Historically, the FAA has tended to deal with unruly passengers by issuing warnings or civil penalties. In January, the agency announced it was stepping up its game with a much stricter “zero tolerance” policy towards passengers disrupting flights, but the very premise of zero tolerance is laughable.
The FAA is clearly ill-equipped to deal with the sheer volume of air rage incidents. So far this year, the agency has opened 755 investigations, more than double the number of cases opened in 2019 and 2020 combined, but only 17% of all incidents reported in 2021.
Last month, the FAA proposed more than $ 1 million in civil penalties against 154 airline passengers for unruly behavior. These cases represent only the 4% of the worst offenders.
The threat of four- and five-figure fines has not curbed unruly behavior on planes. “Civil sanctions alone fail to deter criminal activity by airline passengers,” Senators Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and Dick Durbin, chair of the Judiciary Committee of the United States. Senate, written to Dickson this week.
Yesterday, the FAA appeared to kick the box out of the airlines, giving U.S. carriers a week to develop a plan to tighten the screws on in-flight disruptions. In a meeting yesterday with trade groups, the agency urged the industry “to commit to taking more steps” to address the issue, saying it “believes further action from airlines and all aviation stakeholders is necessary to end unsafe behavior, ”Reuters reported. .
One measure that airlines could take is to stop selling alcohol on flights. Of the six largest US airlines, only Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have such a policy in place for passengers traveling by coach. Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and JetBlue Airways still offer beer and wine to all passengers.
The airline industry, meanwhile, says it is a job for the Justice Department. “We believe the United States government is well equipped to prosecute unruly and disruptive behavior on board,” wrote a group of organizations representing airlines, pilots, flight attendants and transportation workers in one. letter to Attorney General Garland in June.
The industry coalition stressed that the maximum penalty under federal law for violently disrupting a flight is 20 years in prison. “Making these lawsuits public will highlight the serious consequences of breaking the law and act as an effective deterrent against future disruptions on board,” the group wrote.
Senators Cantwell and Durbin seem to agree. “As you know it, [Department of Justice] has ample power to prosecute those who commit crimes on board an aircraft ”, the senators wrote to Garland this week. “It is essential that the Department of Justice direct federal law enforcement officials and prosecutors to use these authorities to thoroughly investigate reported incidents on board aircraft and, when substantiated, by evidence, prosecute those who are criminally responsible. “
Senators Cantwell and Durbin have requested briefings from the DOJ and the FAA “as soon as possible and no later than October 11, 2021”.