US Justice Department cracking down on unruly air passengers

Nov 25, 2021

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The U.S. Justice Department is cracking down on unruly airline passengers as attacks on flight attendants and other airline workers have intensified.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced Wednesday, Nov. 24, that he’s directed staff at the Department of Justice to prioritize the prosecution of federal crimes committed on planes and at airports.

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That should give law enforcement more power and resources to investigate and prosecute crimes committed in the air.

The union for flight attendants – the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) – surveyed its members in September and found that 85% of flight attendants reported they have dealt with unruly passengers. 

A fifth of those surveyed said they’ve encountered physical violence on aircraft.

Related: 85% of flight attendants say they’ve dealt with unruly passengers this year

In a statement issued during the busy Thanksgiving travel week, Attorney General Garland wrote:

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

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research, told TPG, “It’s about time that action is taken against these criminals.”

JohnnyJet founder and editor-in-chief, John E. DiScala, (aka Johnny Jet), had a similar take telling TPG, “It’s about time. In addition, they need to create an airline no-fly list, so if a ‘turkey’ causes problems on one airline, they can’t book a return ticket on another.”

Related: FAA cracking down on unruly passengers

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as of Nov. 23, 2021, there have been more than 5,300 incidents of unruly passengers, including more than 3,850 related to mask-wearing. The FAA has a zero-tolerance policy on bad behavior and can impose fines up to $37,000 per incident. The FAA has also referred at least 37 cases to the FBI for further investigation.

Harteveldt said, “There’s no excuse for anyone to verbally or physically assault anyone on a plane, whether it’s another passenger or crew member. Nor is there a reason for anyone to be verbally or physically abuse to people working at airports.”

Brian Sumers is editor-at-large for travel site Skift. He told TPG, “It’s nice to see the government taking air rage seriously. Airline front-line workers have been complaining that more passengers than ever are failing to follow federal regulations. People drinking alcohol has been a major problem.”

But Sumers also told me he’s worried the crackdown won’t be enough, “I wonder if this will be much of a deterrent. Most air rage is not planned in advance. People drink too much, or they’re having a bad day, or they’re stressed, and they lose it. When they fight with flight attendants, they aren’t thinking about prosecution. That’s only something that happens after the fact. Ideally, the industry and regulators will find a way to stop air rage before it starts.”

Related: Air rage crisis: Congress gets an earful on unruly flyer incidents aboard US flights

Henry Harteveldt suggested the Justice Department taking action against unruly passengers might lead other passengers to think twice before they become abusive to airline workers in the future.

“I think we have reached the point where airlines would be justified to have passengers acknowledge they will adhere to a “code of conduct” as part of the check-in process,” Harteveldt continued.

Harteveldt also told TPG:

“It’s fair to say that none of us like to wear masks on planes, but it’s now a federal requirement that we do so, and airlines are required to enforce that. It’s clear some passengers feel that rather than accept this requirement, they feel entitled to dispute it. Perhaps they are frustrated by the aspects of air travel and wearing masks is the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back that leads to these outbursts. It’s not acceptable, and as a passenger, you have two choices: comply with the regulations, whether it’s fastening your seatbelt or wearing a mask, or find another way to get from point A to point B.”

Featured image of Attorney General Merrick Garland during a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on November 8, 2021. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

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