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FAA makes ‘zero tolerance’ policy for unruly passengers permanent

The policy was put into place in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol

Delta Air Lines planes on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport in New York in August 2021. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg News)

The nation’s top aviation official on Wednesday said he is making permanent a “zero tolerance” policy designed to curb bad behavior on U.S. commercial aircraft.

The zero-tolerance policy was the Federal Aviation Administration’s attempt to deal with a rise in reports of passengers acting out on flights. It was one of several actions taken to address security concerns in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“Behaving dangerously on a plane will cost you; that’s a promise,” Billy Nolen, acting administrator of the FAA, said in a statement that accompanied the announcement.

FAA issues special order aimed on cracking down on unruly passengers

The special order signed by then-FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, meant the agency could take immediate action, including issuing civil fines, against passengers who threatened, assaulted, intimidated or otherwise interfered with crew members while on an aircraft. Before the order, the agency often had to take intermediate steps, such as issuing warnings or recommending counseling before moving to more serious punishments.

While such conflicts have been a problem in the past, the number of reported incidents soared during the coronavirus pandemic, with reports of crew members being assaulted onboard.

In 2021, the FAA received nearly 6,000 reports of unruly behavior on flights, including incidents where individuals assaulted crew members or attempted to bite other passengers. It launched investigations in 1,100 cases. Many of the incidents also were tied to conflicts over the federal mask mandate, which required travelers to wear masks when flying commercially. The mandate was rescinded this week, a move that many in the industry hope will reduce onboard conflict.

In addition to issuing fines, the FAA also can refer individuals to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. The Justice Department has pledged to prioritize investigations of crimes onboard planes.

The FAA also is working with the Transportation Security Administration to revoke PreCheck status of passengers who have been fined by the FAA.

A bill introduced this month in Congress seeks to create a “no-fly” list for unruly passengers. During the pandemic, airlines created “no-fly” lists aimed at keeping passengers who acted out on flights or refused to wear masks off their planes. This week, some carriers, including United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, said they will review those lists to determine whether individuals will have their flight privileges restored.