US Attorney General Merrick Garland has instructed the US Department of Justice to prioritise the prosecution of unruly airline passengers as domestic air travel enters the peak holiday season.
The memorandum to federal law enforcement follows a spike in reports of unruly travellers, with flight crews reporting more than 5,300 cases to the Federal Aviation Administration so far this year, including nearly 300 reports of “passenger disturbances due to alcohol and intoxication”.
The agency also has reported more than 3,800 incidents stemming from passengers refusing to wear face coverings during the coronavirus pandemic, as of 23 November.
Passengers “who assault, intimidate or threaten violence against flight crews and flight attendants do more than harm those employees; they prevent the performance of critical duties that help ensure safe air travel,” Mr Garland said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Similarly, when passengers commit violent acts against other passengers in the close confines of a commercial aircraft, the conduct endangers everyone aboard,” he said.
FAA officials have launched more than 1,000 passenger misconduct investigations this year, marking a 441 per cent increase over 2020. The agency said that the rate of violations has dropped following the launch of its “zero tolerance” policy, but “but the rate remains too high,” the agency said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The unacceptable disruptive behavior that we’re seeing is a serious safety threat to flights, and we’re committed to our partnership with the DOJ to combat it,” agency administrator Stephen Dickson said in a statement.
In a letter to travel officials in August, Mr Dickson said that the as number of passengers has increased, “so has the number of unruly and unsafe behavior incidents on planes and in airports.”
“Every week, we see situations in which law enforcement was asked to meet an aircraft at the gate following an unruly passenger incident,” he said. “In some cases, flight attendants have reported being physically assaulted. Nevertheless, many of these passengers were interviewed by local police and released without criminal charges of any kind. When this occurs, we miss a key opportunity to hold unruly passengers accountable for their unacceptable and dangerous behavior.”
The agency does not have authority to prosecute unruly passengers, prompting the Justice Department to step in; its information-sharing protocol between the FAA and federal law enforcement has “already resulted in the referral of dozens of incidents ... to the FBI for investigation,” according to the DOJ.
Unruly passengers also can be liable for civil penalties – up to $37,000 per violation – in addition to criminal charges.
Last month, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg suggested that a federal no-fly list for unruly passengers “should be on the table”.
“There is absolutely no excuse for this kind of treatment of flight crews in the air or any of the essential workers – from bus drivers to air crews who get people to where they need to be,” he told CNN.