Domestic flight crews reported 121 unruly passengers to federal authorities last year. These include incidents in which a passenger assaults, threatens, intimidates or interferes with an airline crew member in the course of his or her duties while aboard an airplane. Reporting is at the discretion of crew members. Penalties have the potential to be harsh -- a single offense can bring a $25,000 fine and criminal charges. However, a recent USA Today investigation found that between 2009 and 2013 only one in six of these complaints resulted in a fine.
A number of factors are driving the overall decline. The FAA adopted stiffer penalties for passenger disruptions in the year 2000, and airlines adopted zero-tolerance approaches to bad behavior in the years after 2001. Airlines may also now be more likely to nip passenger problems in the bud by denying boarding to unruly travelers so they don't become a problem for flight attendants on the plane. The 2012 FAA reauthorization bill included provisions aimed at helping airline workers better deal with drunk or belligerent travelers.
It's in airlines' financial interest to make the default flying experience as miserable as possible, the better to entice you into paying for "upgrades," like humane legroom, that were once part of the standard fare. While you'd think that packing more people into smaller spaces with fewer amenities would lead to increased passenger rage incidents, over the past few years the opposite has happened. Flying has become so undignified and degrading that the airlines have successfully cowed their passengers into submission.