Jun 22, 2021 • Andrew Leonatti; FINDLAW/BLOGS/LAW AND DAILY LIFE

Could Unruly Airline Passengers Prompt Federal Prosecutions?

Millions of people are taking to the skies again, desperate to go somewhere — anywhere — different.

Passenger screening data from the Transportation Security Administration shows that passenger airline traffic is inching back toward 2019 levels. That means crowded airports and airplanes are coming back.

But it’s apparent that during the long, pandemic-induced break from travel, a lot of us out there have forgotten how to behave ourselves in the one setting where you really shouldn’t misbehave.

Unruly Passengers Are Everywhere

Earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration revealed that the agency has received approximately 3,000 reports of passengers behaving badly so far in 2021. Doesn’t sound like much when millions are flying? To put those numbers in context, the FAA typically receives between 100 and 150 complaints per year.

According to the FAA, about 2,300 of those reports have to do with passengers refusing to comply with the federal mask mandate in place for all public transportation. There have been another 465 reports related to assaulting, threatening to assault, or interfering with crew members.

“This is an environment that we just haven’t seen before, and we can’t wait for it to be over,” said Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union President Sara Nelson.

Airlines Ask Feds for Tougher Enforcement

Earlier this year, the FAA announced in a new zero-tolerance policy that they would be taking action against these passengers. So far, that has led to 57 civil fines and more than 400 enforcement actions, which can also include a ban on flying.

But that’s not good enough for the airlines. This week, Airlines for America, the trade group representing passenger airlines, and a coalition of pilot and flight attendant unions sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting that the Justice Department crack down on these petulant passengers.

“Making these prosecutions public will put a spotlight on the serious consequences when breaking the law and will act as an effective deterrent against future onboard disruptions,” the group wrote in their letter.

You Really Should Behave When Flying

Do not forget — and definitely don’t take for granted — that both airlines and law enforcement have broad latitude to remove you from flights and levy harsh punishments.

As the coalition noted in their letter to Garland, the federal law that bans assaulting, intimidating, or otherwise interferes with a crewmember performing their duties recommends a fine and up to 20 years in prison for a conviction.

As always, your plane ticket is a contract, and the airline retains way more rights than you do. Pilots and crew members can remove you for posing just about any vague resemblance to a security threat. That also includes the ability to ban you from future flights, which many airlines are taking advantage of during the pandemic.

Of course, if the DOJ decides to take up this issue and initiate federal prosecutions, it is important to remember that you have rights. No matter your behavior on a flight, you deserve to mount a spirited criminal defense.

However, if you refuse to wear a mask on a plane and get belligerent about it, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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