Unruly passengers seem to be on news feeds on a nearly daily basis.  Disturbed by this trend, Airlines for America (“A4A”), a trade association representing major North American airlines, wrote a public letter to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson on June 21, 2021 regarding recent increases in unruly passenger
behavior on U.S. airlines.  A4A stressed in the letter that airline passengers “have not received the FAA's ‘zero tolerance' message,” alluding to instances of passengers' onboard behavior “deteriorating into
heinous acts, including assaults, threats and intimidation of crewmembers.”

A4A did not discuss to what extent passenger compliance with Covid-19 mask mandates precipitated recent concern over passenger behavior.  In fact, Covid-19 and mask mandates were not referenced in the letter.  However, the FAA has received approximately 3,900 reports of unruly passenger behavior since January 2021 – more than 2,800 (or approximately 74% of reports) of which involved passengers refusing to wear a mask.  In 2021, and amidst new pandemic-travel norms, the FAA has levied fines totaling more than $1 million, which is already its highest annual fine total ever. 

Unruly passenger behavior is governed by 49 U.S.C. § 46504, which prohibits assault or intimidation of a flight crewmember or attendant that interferes with the performance of a crewmember's duties or lessens the ability of the crewmember to perform those duties.  Any act that may place an ordinary, reasonable person in fear is sufficient to constitute an act of intimidation.  United States v. Murphy, 556 F. Supp. 2d 12332 (D. Colo. 2008).  Courts have interpreted Section 46504 as requiring only an act of assault, intimidation or threat that interferes with performance of a flight crew's duties – it is not necessary that the actual safety of the aircraft be at stake or in danger.  United States v. Tabacca, 924 F.2d 906 (9th Cir. 1991).

Under Section 46504, the FAA may fine passengers up to $52,500 in civil penalties for unruly behavior.  In addition or in lieu of fines, violators of Section 46504 may face up to twenty years' imprisonment.

Despite these steep penalties, A4A urged the FAA to remain diligent in referring particularly “abhorrent” cases to the Department of Justice.  While the Department of Justice has not directly responded to A4A's letter, the FAA did publicly respond. 

On August 19, 2021, the FAA announced additional actions to curb unruly passenger behavior, including urging airport police to arrest more unruly passengers and for airport vendors to stop serving alcoholic drinks to-go.  In addition, the FAA has launched a public awareness campaign to engage with airline passengers, flight attendants, pilots and travelers on the issue of unruly passenger behavior. 

Finally, the FAA already has imposed significant fines in particularly egregious cases, including a $42,000 fine for failing to comply with the facemask mandate and engaging in intimidating behavior while allegedly intoxicated.  A4A is optimistic that spotlighting fines and sentences handed to perpetrators might curb unruly passenger behavior.

Ed. Note: As we go to press, President Biden has directed the Transportation Security Administration to double fines on travelers who refuse to wear masks.

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