U.S. to Prioritize Prosecution of Unruly Air Passengers

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The U.S. plans to prosecute unruly air passengers as complaints surge.

The F.A.A. expects the number of travelers for Thanksgiving to reach prepandemic levels, with more than 53 million people traveling in total in the days leading up to the holiday.
The F.A.A. expects the number of travelers for Thanksgiving to reach prepandemic levels, with more than 53 million people traveling in total in the days leading up to the holiday.Credit…Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
  • Published Nov. 24, 2021Updated Nov. 25, 2021, 4:30 a.m. ET

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland directed prosecutors on Wednesday to prioritize the prosecution of federal crimes on commercial aircraft, as millions of travelers make their way across the United States for Thanksgiving, the most traveled holiday in the country.

As travel in the United States nears prepandemic levels, the federal government has ramped up prosecution of crimes on flights, especially by passengers refusing to abide by Covid protocols. In some cases, passengers have assaulted or threatened flight attendants.

Federal law prohibits assaults, intimidation and threats of violence that interfere with workers on flights, as well as other criminal acts that can occur during a flight.

Reports filed in the Aviation Safety Reporting System database by flight attendants at times describe a chaotic, unhinged workplace where passengers regularly abuse airline employees.

“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,” Mr. Garland said in a statement on Wednesday.

In the past year, there have been 5,338 unruly passenger reports, and 3,856 were mask related incidents, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Historically, the F.A.A. has handled these cases with civil penalties, warning notices and counseling. However, under the current zero-tolerance policy toward unruly passengers established in January, the F.A.A. has opted to charge an unruly passenger with civil penalties. A passenger can be fined up to $37,000 per violation, and can be cited for multiple violations at a time.

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