Feds Will Act Swiftly to Prosecute Airline Passengers Who Misbehave, Get Violent

Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo Wednesday to U.S. attorneys nationwide to prioritize the prosecution of federal crimes committed on commercial flights as officials report a historic number of complaints and investigations into passenger behavior.

The memo said the Justice Department is committed to aggressively prosecuting passengers who assault crew members or other passengers, or otherwise endanger the safety of the flight, according to the Associated Press.

Federal law bars passengers from interfering with the members of a flight crew, including assaulting, threatening or intimidating crew members.

The memo comes after the Federal Aviation Administration announced earlier this month that 950 investigations have been launched into passenger behavior in 2021, the highest total since they started keeping track in 1995, with 37 cases referred to the FBI for potential criminal prosecution. The agency averaged 136 investigations per year from 2016 to 2020.

"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," FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said.

The FAA's number of 950 is only a portion of the over 5,000 incidents of unruly passengers reported by airlines this year, with over 3,600 of those related to passengers refusing to follow federal regulations and wear face masks.

The directive also comes near the peak of the holiday travel season, as over 2.2 million people passed through airport security checkpoints last Friday, and the American Automobile Association predicted over 48 million people will travel over 50 miles for Thanksgiving celebrations.

The Association of Flight Attendants is also pushing for a new no-fly list for people who assault airline crew members or other passengers, so someone who is banned on one airline could be banned on multiple.

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

Merrick Garland, Airline Passengers, Prosecution
A plane prepares for a flight during holiday travel at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Tuesday in Atlanta. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed U.S. attorneys across the country to swiftly prioritize prosecution of federal crimes that happen on commercial flights as federal officials face a historic number of investigations into passenger behavior. Brynn Anderson/Associated Press File

In a statement, Garland said such passengers do more than harm employees. "They prevent the performance of critical duties that help ensure safe air travel. Similarly, when passengers commit violent acts against other passengers in the close confines of a commercial aircraft, the conduct endangers everyone aboard," he said.

The memo also notes that dozens of incidents have been reported to the FBI by the Federal Aviation Administration—it investigates some flight disturbances and can issue civil fines to disruptive passengers—as part of an "information-sharing protocol" between the two agencies.

Airlines and their unions have pressed the federal government to push more aggressively for criminal prosecution.

"The Department of Justice is committed to using its resources to do its part to prevent violence, intimidation, threats of violence and other criminal behavior that endangers the safety of passengers, flight crews and flight attendants on commercial aircraft," Garland said in the statement.

Merrick Garland, Airline Passengers, Prosecution
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland delivers remarks at the 2021 Tribal Nations Summit at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on November 15 in Washington, DC. Garland sent a memo to U.S. attorneys across the country encouraging swift prosecution of unruly airline passengers as the FAA reports a record number of investigations. Alex Wong/Getty Images