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More air rage incidents spur calls for criminal enforcement

FAA has already investigated more cases this year alone than over previous six years combined

Airline staff are seen at Dulles International Airport in August. Flight attendant groups want the Justice Department to be more aggressive in prosecuting disruptive airline passengers.
Airline staff are seen at Dulles International Airport in August. Flight attendant groups want the Justice Department to be more aggressive in prosecuting disruptive airline passengers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee called Thursday for unruly airline passengers to be prosecuted for misbehavior, arguing that fines aren’t doing enough to prevent such incidents.

“We need more prosecutions when there are serious violent incidents on airplanes,” Oregon Democrat Peter A. DeFazio said.

His comments, which were echoed by Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, came during a nearly three-hour hearing of the Transportation panel’s Aviation Subcommittee on increased incidents of air rage.

Between 2015 and 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration investigated 786 cases of unruly passengers, said subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen, D-Wash. By comparison, in the first nine months of 2021 alone, the FAA investigated 789 cases of unruly passengers.

Since the beginning of 2021, Larsen said, airlines have reported 4,385 unruly passenger complaints. Of those, 3,199 were mask-related.

The FAA has fined disruptive passengers more than $1 million since instituting a “zero-tolerance” policy in January. Under federal law, the agency can propose up to $37,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases.

Nelson said she knows of only one case that the Department of Justice has prosecuted but “many cases the Department of Justice could take up.” She urged the committee to encourage the DOJ to be more aggressive in prosecuting disruptive airline passengers, warning that such acts can distract flight attendants from larger threats to the safety of the aircraft.

“We are in jeopardy of missing cues of a coordinated attack,” she said. “We cannot afford to lose any time when responding to emergencies or preparing for an emergency landing.”

But Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves, the Aviation Subcommittee’s ranking Republican, said that while air rage incidents were unacceptable, they’re not representative of the majority of the 350 million airline passengers who have flown without incident. Such cases, he said, were the “exception.” 

Teddy Andrews, an American Airlines flight attendant appearing on behalf of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, related an incident in which he asked a passenger to put his mask over his mouth and nose. The passenger called him a racial slur in response. “I don’t have to listen to a damn word you have to say,” the passenger told him. 

Andrews, who nearly died of COVID-19 in March 2020, successfully de-escalated that incident but said it was indicative of a larger problem. With COVID-19, he worried about being infected on the job. Then, he worried about losing his job because of the steep decline in air travel. Now, he’s concerned about his safety. 

“It feels like flight attendants have become the target for all kinds of frustration,” Andrews said. 

Alcohol a concern

DeFazio said he was disturbed by recent signs in airports advertising “to-go” alcohol sales, saying alcohol abuse contributed to the problems and calling for an end to such sales. 

But Christopher R. Bidwell, senior vice president of safety for the Airports Council International-North America, said FAA data indicates alcohol was involved in 6 percent of unruly passenger incidents and “we have no way of knowing whether the unruly passenger was intoxicated when they arrived at the airport.” 

DeFazio interrupted, clearly frustrated. “I was getting a beer and some guy asked for, like, three shots of vodka in a to-go cup. Before he cranks that down with whatever he drank beforehand, he’s going to be drunk. … I’m asking you a simple question. This did not occur before COVID. And why is it occurring now, and why won’t you stop it?”

DeFazio argued that to-go alcohol sales were “an inducement for people to break the law.” 

Bidwell said to-go alcohol was available before the pandemic in some instances and “is only available in a relatively few locations.” 

“Only airline employees and specifically gate agents can deny boarding to passengers,” he said.

“Right, so they’re going to have to do breathalyzers,” DeFazio shot back.  

He also questioned why airlines that have banned passengers for poor behavior could not share information with other airlines to alert them to potentially disruptive passengers. 

Secondary barriers 

Lawmakers also questioned why the FAA has yet to issue rules on a 2018 FAA law requiring airplanes to have secondary cockpit barriers to prevent passengers from invading the cockpit. The FAA recently moved the rule to its priority rule-making list for 2021, but it has yet to be implemented. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Donald M. Payne Jr., D-N.J., asked separately how they could encourage the FAA to issue the rule. 

Nelson said the issue was identified in the aftermath of 9/11, but “it has not been done yet.” 

“This is an area of vulnerability,” she said.

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