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FBI to weigh prosecuting 37 unruly passengers amid uptick of incidents on planes

Delta Air Lines planes on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport in New York. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg News)

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday that it has referred the cases of more than three dozen unruly passengers to the FBI for potential criminal prosecution in hopes of curbing a sharp uptick in people acting violently on planes this year.

“Let this serve both as a warning and a deterrent: If you disrupt a flight, you risk not just fines from the FAA but federal criminal prosecution as well,” FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson said Thursday in a news release.

In August, the FAA and the Justice Department began developing an information-sharing protocol to refer the most serious cases to the FBI for further review and faster prosecution, the agencies said in a joint statement.

The step comes as U.S. airlines grapple with an increase in disruptive or violent incidents on board flights — many involving hostile passengers protesting mask mandates as travel goes back to pre-pandemic levels.

The FAA initiated a “zero tolerance” policy at the beginning of the year in response to what it described as a rapid rise in the number of passengers disrupting flights with threatening — or, in many cases, violent — behavior. Previously, unruly passengers would receive a warning or training for their misconduct. They could also be hit with a civil penalty of up to $25,000 per incident. Now, all incidents are subject to a fine of up to $37,000 for each federal violation.

As more people start flying again, airlines are seeing a big jump in disruptive behavior and cases of unruly passengers. So why is it happening? (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

The FAA reported 5,033 incidents of unruly passengers as of November during this year, 3,642 of which were related to mask-wearing. From the total number of incidents, the FAA initiated 950 investigations, a sixfold increase from last year.

The agency initiated enforcement action in 227 cases, some of which will lead to a civil penalty. Of the 227, 37 of the most egregious cases of disruptive or violent passenger behavior were referred to the FBI for possible criminal prosecution.

The Justice Department and the FBI said in a statement that they are “committed to prioritizing the review of the cases referred by the FAA and initiating criminal prosecution where appropriate.”

On Thursday, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, applauded the FAA’s and the Justice Department’s decision.

“Expeditiously referring the most violent, physical assaults against crewmembers and passengers to the Department of Justice for public prosecution is the most effective way to deter bad actors and put a stop to the spike in disruptive passengers,” Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA International, said in a news release.

Flight attendants, prepare for landing — and unruly passengers

In recent weeks, the association has repeatedly urged federal authorities as well as airlines and airports to ramp up efforts to hold disruptive passengers accountable and to create a centralized list of violators who will be denied permission to fly on all airlines.

Currently, there is no such list, but individual companies have the right to keep internal lists of people banned from boarding their planes.

“If a passenger physically assaults crewmembers or other passengers on one airline, they pose a risk to passengers and crew at every airline. They should be banned from flying on all airlines. Period,” Nelson said in the statement.

A national survey of almost 5,000 flight attendants released by the union found that 85 percent of them had dealt with unruly passengers and nearly 1 in 5 had experienced physical incidents in 2021.

The outrage over unruly behavior on flights surfaced again last week when an American Airlines flight attendant was hospitalized with several broken face bones after a passenger assaulted her midflight.

The California-bound airplane was diverted and forced to land in Denver, in what American Airlines CEO Doug Parker called “one the worst attacks” in the company’s history.

Parker also said on social media that the man accused of the assault will be banned from flying on the airline again and that the company was trying to ensure that the passenger was prosecuted “to the fullest extent possible.”

On Monday, the Justice Department announced that the man has been charged with interference with a flight crew and assault within the U.S. special aircraft jurisdiction.

Reacting to the news of the assault, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Sunday that a federal no-fly list of violent airplane passengers “should be on the table,” given the severity and frequency of such incidents.

“It is completely unacceptable to mistreat, abuse or even disrespect flight crews,” Buttigieg told CNN. “We will continue to look at all options to make sure that flight crews and passengers are safe.”

The Post spoke to experts who broke down the psychology behind coronavirus-related outbursts and how to act when confronted by one. (Video: Sarah Parnass, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

The mounting number of incidents has also drawn rebuke from the White House. In September, President Biden lambasted travelers who harass or attack flight attendants while refusing to wear a face mask.

He also announced a doubling of fines for those who don’t comply with the federal transportation mask mandate: a minimum penalty of $500 for first-time offenders and $3,000 for those caught doing so a second time.

“If you break the rules, be prepared to pay,” Biden said, speaking from the White House. “And by the way, show some respect. The anger you see on television toward flight attendants and others doing their job is wrong. It’s ugly.”

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