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Airlines want unruly passengers to face more criminal charges

An American Airlines plane parked at an airport
There have been almost 3,000 reports of unruly passengers on flights this year, a dramatic increase over previous years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
(Jenny Kane / Associated Press)

U.S. airlines and their unions want the Justice Department to send a strong message against the rise in unruly passengers with additional federal criminal charges.

Several airline trade groups and unions sent a letter Monday to Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland calling for criminal enforcement that goes beyond the increase in civil charges filed so far this year by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

“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 said in the letter.

The Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the letters.

Incidents of passengers being unruly — ignoring crew members’ instructions, fighting and refusing to wear a mask — have been surging, according to the FAA.

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The FAA says it has been aggressively acting against people who violate federal regulations. It has sought more than $300,000 in fines in more than 20 cases.

“The FAA’s zero tolerance policy remains fully in place, 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,” the agency said in an emailed statement.

There have been almost 3,000 reports of unruly passengers on flights this year, a dramatic increase over previous years, according to the FAA. The agency has attempted to fine dozens of people, many of whom refused to wear masks while aboard planes. Rules requiring face coverings have eased recently, but masks are still required aboard public transportation.

The federal government is extending the requirement that travelers wear face masks on planes, trains and buses.

Federal law makes it a crime to assault or intimidate airline pilots or flight attendants, though violations have traditionally been handled with noncriminal civil prosecutions by the FAA.

“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 groups said.

The organizations behind the letter include Airlines for America, a trade group for large carriers; the largest U.S. flight attendant unions; and groups representing other airlines.

A4A’s president, Nicholas Calio, asked FAA Administrator Steve Dickson in a separate letter Monday to coordinate with the Justice Department and to refer cases for criminal charges where appropriate.

Southwest Airlines is pushing back plans to resume selling alcohol on flights after a recent increase in unruly passengers


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