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Airlines ask Justice Dept. for criminal crackdown on out-of-control passengers

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

A coalition of airline industry groups has asked the Justice Department to “commit to the full and public prosecution of onboard acts of violence” as bad behavior by passengers continues to rise.

In a letter sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday, the group — which includes unions and trade associations — lauded the efforts of the Federal Aviation Administration, which announced a zero-tolerance policy for bad behavior in January.

Since then, the agency has received about 3,100 reports of unruly behavior and opened investigations into at least 465 incidents, compared with 146 across all of 2019. The FAA has kicked off 57 civil penalty actions, Monday’s letter said, and announced a total of $368,000 in fines against 21 passengers. Late Tuesday, the FAA announced that it was proposing another $124,500 in fines against eight more travelers, bringing this year’s total to $563,800.

The FAA noted in a statement that it has the authority to levy fines but not to criminally prosecute passengers, some of whom, in 2021, have flouted mask regulations, gotten into shouting matches and attacked flight attendants.

Airlines have seen an unprecedented rise in disruptive passengers. Experts say it could get worse.

“We ask that more be done to deter egregious behavior, which is in violation of federal law and crew member instruction,” the industry coalition said in its letter. “Specifically, the federal government should send a strong and consistent message through criminal enforcement that compliance with federal law and upholding aviation safety are of paramount importance.”

The groups asked that federal prosecutors put resources toward what they called “egregious” cases. The department said it had received the letter but had no comment on the request.

The trade group Airlines for America, which signed on to the Justice Department letter, also sent a separate missive to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson. In it, the group said measures such as flying bans and the suspension of alcohol service have not been enough to stop unruly behavior by passengers.

“Unfortunately, we continue to see onboard behavior deteriorating into heinous acts, including assaults, threats and intimidation of crew members that directly interfere with the performance of crew member duties and jeopardize the safety and security of everyone onboard the aircraft,” wrote Nicholas Calio, Airlines for America’s president and CEO.

A Southwest flight attendant lost two teeth after being assaulted on a flight. The passenger was arrested.

Calio requested that the FAA refer “abhorrent cases” to the Justice Department “so that the federal government may fully, swiftly and publicly prosecute criminal acts to the fullest extent of the law and deter this dangerous and concerning behavior.” He also asked that the FAA and other federal agencies continue to get the word out about the penalties travelers face for bad behavior in the air, which can include large fines and jail time.

“The FAA’s zero tolerance policy remains fully in place,” the agency said in a statement. “And we will continue to work with local law enforcement and the DOJ to make it clear that unsafe and unruly behavior simply does not fly.”