The Department of Justice has directed US attorneys to prioritize prosecution of violent behavior by passengers aboard commercial flights. In a memo to federal prosecutors, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the department stands ready to enforce laws against actions that “endanger the safety” of other passengers, flight crews and flight attendants.
“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,” Garland said.
“Similarly, when passengers commit violent acts against other passengers in the close confines of a commercial aircraft, the conduct endangers everyone aboard,” the Attorney General continued.
The DOJ directive comes as air travel continues to ramp up during the holiday season. As of Nov. 23, the Federal Aviation Administration has received over 5,300 reports of unruly passenger incidents, in addition to over 3,800 mask-related incidents related to COVID-19 mask rules.
Unruly passenger behavior has been a growing problem for the airline industry, particularly since the introduction in January of mask mandates aboard public transportation. In May the FAA instituted a zero-tolerance policy toward aggressive and combative passengers which involves levying heavy fines on violators.
However that seems not to have slowed the rise in the number of incidents, prompting FAA head Steven Dickson to write a letter to airport officials and local enforcement around the country in August urging more criminal charges to be filed in such cases.
In June, a coalition of industry stakeholders, led by Airlines for America and major aviation labor unions, sent a letter to the attorney general urging the Justice Department to “ensure that egregious onboard conduct is fully and criminally prosecuted, sending a strong public message of deterrence, safety and security.”
For its part, airlines have created their own no-fly lists of unruly passengers, but so far, the lists are not shared among carriers. In September, Delta Air Lines proposed creating such a database across the industry to “further protect airline employees across the industry.”
The Justice Department has also established its own information-sharing protocol with the FAA that “helps ensure the department is notified about criminal conduct” on commercial flights. That step “has already resulted in the referral of dozens of incidents by the FAA to the FBI for investigation,” according to the DOJ statement.
The AP reports that the FAA has launched 950 investigations into unruly passenger behavior on flights this year, with 37 cases referred to the FBI for possible criminal prosecution.
“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,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said.