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Thursday, December 9, 2021
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Unruly Passenger Incidents Skyrocket, Proposed Civil Penalties Reach $1 Million in 2021

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced that its total in proposed civil penalties against unruly airline passengers has reached $1 million in 2021 already.

Since Jan. 1, 2021, the FAA has received approximately 3,889 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, including about 2,867 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal facemask mandate. The number of unruly passenger incidents subject to enforcement investigations has skyrocketed and are currently almost twice the previous peak.

Earlier this month the FAA sent a letter to airports, requesting they coordinate more closely with local law enforcement to prosecute egregious cases. The FAA does not have criminal prosecutorial authority. 

“Every week, we see situations in which law enforcement was asked to meet an aircraft at the gate following an unruly passenger incident,” the letter reads. “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 letter also requested that airports work to prevent passengers from bringing “to-go” cups of alcohol aboard the aircraft.

“Our investigations show that alcohol often contributes to this unsafe behavior. The FAA requests that airports work with their concessionaires to help avoid this. Even though FAA regulations specifically prohibit the consumption of alcohol aboard an aircraft that is not served by the airline, we have received reports that some airport concessionaires have offered alcohol “to go,” and passengers believe they can carry that alcohol onto their flights or they become inebriated during the boarding process.”

On August 19, the FAA proposed the latest in civil penalties, amounting to $531,545 against 34 airline passengers for alleged unruly behavior. The cases are as follows:

  • $45,000 against a passenger on a May 24, 2021, jetBlue Airways flight from New York, N.Y., to Orlando, Fla., for allegedly throwing objects, including his carry-on luggage, at other passengers; refusing to stay seated; lying on the floor in the aisle, refusing to get up, and then grabbing a flight attendant by the ankles and putting his head up her skirt. The passenger was placed in flexi-cuffs and the flight made an emergency landing in Richmond, Va.
  • $42,000 against a passenger on a May 16, 2021, jetBlue Airways flight from Queens,  N.Y., to San Francisco, Calif., for allegedly interfering with crewmembers after failing to comply with the facemask mandate; making non-consensual physical contact with another passenger; throwing a playing card at a passenger and threatening him with physical harm; making stabbing gestures towards certain passengers; and snorting what appeared to be cocaine from a plastic bag, which the cabin crew confiscated. The passenger became increasingly agitated and the crew equipped themselves with flex cuffs and ice mallets to ensure the safety of the flight if his behavior worsened. The flight diverted to Minneapolis, Minn., where law enforcement removed the passenger from the aircraft.
  • $32,500 against a passenger on a Jan. 2, 2021, Southwest Airlines flight from Orlando, Fla., to Kansas City, Mo., for allegedly assaulting passengers around him because someone in his row would not change seats to accommodate his travel partner. He told his travel partner he would need to bail him out of jail for the physically violent crimes he threatened to commit. The captain returned the flight to the gate where law enforcement met the passenger. Southwest banned him from flying with the carrier in the future. The FAA does not put passengers on no-fly lists.
  • $30,000 against a passenger on a Jan. 3, 2021, Frontier Airlines flight from Atlanta, Ga., to New York, N.Y., for allegedly interfering with the flight attendants’ deplaning procedures upon arrival. He attempted to gain entry to the flight deck by physically assaulting two flight attendants, threatening to kill one of them, and demanding them to open the door. The captain called for law enforcement to meet him after exiting.
  • $29,000 against a passenger on an April 12, 2021, jetBlue Airways flight from Boston, Mass., to Orlando, Fla., for allegedly interfering with crewmembers after refusing to comply with the facemask mandate. She also shouted obscenities at the flight crew, and intentionally bumped into a seated passenger on her way to the lavatory. When the seated passenger objected to this behavior, she punched the passenger in the face. Law enforcement met the aircraft at the gate.
  • $25,500 against a passenger on a March 11, 2021, Frontier Airlines flight from Orlando, Fla., to Providence, R.I., for allegedly repeatedly kicking the aircraft bulkhead; screaming obscenities at the passenger next to her; locking herself in the lavatory for 30 minutes; yelling obscenities at the flight attendant after they informed her through the lavatory door that the captain turned the fastened seatbelt sign on and she must return to her seat; throwing corn nuts at passengers and shoving both her middle fingers in the flight attendant’s face when they instructed her to stop throwing the nuts. The passenger was issued a “red card” notice, and in response, she again put both her middle fingers in the flight attendant’s face. Law enforcement removed her from the flight upon arrival.
  • $19,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 11, 2021, American Airlines flight from Miami, Fla., to Nashville, Tenn., for allegedly interfering with crewmembers after refusing to comply with the facemask mandate; ignoring the fastened seatbelt sign; and pushing a flight attendant into another passenger with his hip.
  • $17,530 against a passenger on an April 16, 2021, jetBlue Airways flight from San Diego, Calif., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for allegedly interfering with crewmembers after failing to comply with the facemask mandate; vaping on the aircraft; and drinking alcohol not served by the airline. Law enforcement met him at the gate.
  • $17,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 28, 2021, Republic Airlines flight from Key West, Fla., to Charlotte, N.C., for allegedly interfering with crewmembers after failing to comply with the facemask mandate; drinking alcohol not served by the airline; and attempting to use a vape pen. The aircraft returned from the gate and she was removed from the aircraft. 
  • $16,700 against a passenger on a Jan. 21, 2021, Allegiant Air flight from Lexington, Ky., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for allegedly smoking in the lavatory.  In addition, on a Jan. 24, 2021, Allegiant Air flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Lexington, Ky., the passenger allegedly physically and verbally assaulted other passengers, and shouted obscenities at the crew members after they moved her to a different seat.
  • $15,000 against a passenger on a May 12, 2021, jetBlue Airways flight from Queens, N.Y., to Kingston, Jamaica, for allegedly striking a flight attendant in the nose. When asked about this behavior, he said she tried to kiss him and stole his money and that he would hit her again if he saw her. The flight returned to Queens, N.Y.
  • $15,000 against a passenger on a Dec. 2, 2020, Frontier Airlines flight from Las Vegas, Nev., to Denver, Colo., for allegedly drinking alcohol that the airline did not serve to him. He did so in front of the flight attendants while they told him it was against federal regulations to drink his own alcohol. Law enforcement met the passenger at the gate.
  • $15,000 against a passenger on the same Dec. 2, 2021, Frontier Airlines flight from Las Vegas, Nev., to Denver, Colo., for allegedly drinking alcohol that the airline did not serve to him. He did so in front of the flight attendants while they told him it was against federal regulations to drink his own alcohol. Law enforcement met the passenger at the gate.
  • $13,000 against a passenger on a Jan 29, 2021, Frontier Airlines flight from San Diego, Calif., to Las Vegas, Nev., for allegedly interfering with flight crewmembers after refusing to comply with the facemask mandate and drinking alcohol that the airline did not serve to her.
  • $13,000 against a passenger on the same Jan. 29, 2021, Frontier Airlines flight from San Diego, Calif., to Las Vegas, Nev., for allegedly interfering with flight crewmembers after refusing to comply with the facemask mandate and for drinking alcohol that the airline did not serve to her.
  • $13,000 against a passenger on the same Jan. 29, 2021, Frontier Airlines flight from San Diego, Calif., to Las Vegas, Nev., for allegedly refusing to comply with the facemask mandate and drinking alcohol that the airline did not serve to her.
  • $13,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 2, 2021, Southwest Airlines flight from Oakland, Calif., to Las Vegas, Nev., for allegedly interfering with flight crewmembers after refusing to comply with flight attendant instructions to turn off her phone during takeoff; wear her facemask; and stop drinking alcohol that the airline did not serve to her.
  • $10,500 against a passenger on an April 29, 2021, Allegiant Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Covington, Ky., for his alleged interference with flight crewmembers after failure to comply with the facemask mandate and subsequently urinating on the lavatory floor, which leaked into the galley area.
  • $10,500 against a passenger on an April 17, 2021, Alaska Airlines flight from Portland, Ore., to Las Vegas, Nev., for disrupting the attention of flight attendants when he repeatedly yelled obscenities at his travel companion and shoved her multiple times. The flight returned to Ore., where it was cancelled upon arrival because the pilots would be over their duty time if they flew back to Nev. Law enforcement met him at the gate.
  • $10,500 against a passenger on an April 2, 2021, Endeavor Airlines flight from Atlanta, Ga., to Jackson, Miss., for allegedly interfering with flight crewmembers after refusing to comply with the facemask mandate; he was also combative with flight attendants after walking to the lavatory while the fastened seatbelt sign was on.
  • $10,500 against a passenger on a March 29, 2021, Allegiant Air flight from Des Moines, Iowa, to Las Vegas, Nev., for allegedly interfering with flight crewmembers after refusing to comply with the facemask mandate. Law enforcement met him at the gate.
  • $10,500 against a passenger on a Feb. 22, 2021, jetBlue Airways flight from Orlando, Fla., to Windsor Locks, Conn., for allegedly refusing to comply with the facemask mandate. The captain returned the plane to the gate and had the passenger removed from the aircraft.
  • $10,315 against a passenger on a Feb. 7, 2021, Allegiant Airlines flight from Orlando, Fla., to Pittsburgh, Penn., for allegedly vaping in the aircraft cabin during the boarding process. The passenger and his father yelled at flight attendants about his refusal to stop vaping. Upon being escorted off the aircraft, the passenger said “I hope this plane [expletive] crashes.”
  • $10,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 9, 2021, Alaska Airlines flight from Chicago, Ill., to San Francisco, Calif., for allegedly interfering with flight crewmembers after failing to comply with the facemask mandate. He also acted as though his hand was a gun and made a “pew, pew” noise as if he was shooting a fellow passenger; after the doors closed but prior to pushback from the gate, he repeatedly pushed the call light button during a PA announcement by the captain and, when the flight attendant responded, he gestured at the PA system and responded in nonsensical babble. He then refused to deplane, which resulted in the removal of all passengers from the aircraft.
  • $9,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 7, 2021, Allegiant Air flight from Orlando, Fla., to Pittsburgh, Penn., for allegedly disruptively arguing with his wife during the boarding process; arguing with flight attendants who told his son to stop vaping; and yelling at the flight attendant “imagine all of you in body bags” as he was being escorted off the aircraft.
  • $9,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 18, 2021, Alaska Airlines flight from Denver, Colo., to Seattle, Wash., for allegedly interfering with flight crewmembers after refusing to comply with the facemask mandate; hiding a flight attendant’s jacket under his seat; punching the aircraft window; and punching a tray table. Law enforcement escorted him off the aircraft.
  • $9,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 14, 2021 Allegiant Air flight from Grand Island, Neb., to Las Vegas, Nev., for allegedly interfering with flight crewmembers after failing to comply with the facemask mandate. She used profane language when speaking to flight attendants and was met by law enforcement upon landing.
  • $9,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 20, 2021, Delta Air Lines flight from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Long Beach, Calif., for his alleged refusal to comply with the crew instructions to wear a facemask.
  • $9,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 5, 2021, Allegiant Air flight from Swanton, Ohio, to Clearwater, Fla., for interfering with flight crewmembers after refusing to wear his facemask and yelling at other passengers during a maintenance diversion in Kentucky. Airport police removed him from the aircraft in Kentucky.
  • $9,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 21, 2021, United Airlines flight from San Francisco, Calif., to Houston, Texas, for her alleged failure to comply with the facemask mandate.
  • $9,000 against a passenger on a Jan. 29, 2021, United Airlines flight from Denver, Colo., to Flagstaff, Ariz., for allegedly interfering with flight crewmembers after refusing to comply with the facemask mandate. Law enforcement met him at the gate.
  • $9,000 against a passenger on a March 26, 2021, Endeavor Airlines flight from Atlanta, Ga., to Gainesville, Fla., for allegedly interfering with crewmembers after failing to comply with the mask mandate. Ground personnel escorted him off the flight after returning to the gate.
  • $8,000 against a passenger on a March 25, 2021, American Airlines flight from Knoxville, Tenn., to Chicago, Ill., for her alleged interference with flight crewmembers after refusal to comply with the facemask mandate.
  • $7,500 against a passenger on a March 6, 2021, jetBlue Airways flight from Boston, Mass., to Miami, Fla., for allegedly threatening to kill a passenger seated in front of him. Law enforcement escorted the passenger off the flight upon landing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) reminded the traveling public on May 14 that if you travel, you are still required to wear a mask on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the United States. Masks are also required in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations.

Federal law prohibits interfering with aircraft crew or physically assaulting or threatening to physically assault aircraft crew or anyone else on an aircraft. Passengers are subject to civil penalties for such misconduct, which can threaten the safety of the flight by disrupting or distracting cabin crew from their safety duties. Additionally, federal law provides for criminal fines and imprisonment of passengers who interfere with the performance of a crewmember’s duties by assaulting or intimidating that crewmember.

The FAA is not alone in recognizing and responding to a surge in unruly passenger incidents both onboard and at airports. In June, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced it was bringing back its self-defense training program, and just last week TSA’s Federal Security Director for Richmond International Airport, Robin “Chuck” Burke, warned of the danger combined when a flight has not only an unruly passenger, but a loaded firearm or other weapon too.

“It’s been well publicized that we are seeing a spike in unruly passengers on board flights, and gun owners need to know that we mean business when we detect a gun at a checkpoint,” Burke said. “The last thing that passengers in commercial aviation need is to have someone with a loaded gun on a flight. We take it extremely seriously when our officers stop a traveler with a gun or any other weapon such as knives, tasers etc., at a checkpoint.”

Earlier this month, Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) sent a letter to the FAA responding to the dramatic rise in air rage incidents over the last several months. In his letter, DeFazio stated that the dramatic increase in airline passengers assaulting other passengers as well as crew members requires a strong federal response.

“The violent, disruptive behavior that we’ve seen on airplanes this year must not go unpunished,” Chair DeFazio wrote in his letter. “Recklessly refusing to wear a mask during the deadliest pandemic in a century is dangerous enough, but punching flight attendants, running for the cockpit door, assaulting other passengers, and the litany of other outrageous incidents reported in the press requires a strong federal response, and I want to ensure that the FAA has the legal tools and authorities necessary to put these incidents to a stop.”

DeFazio asked the FAA to provide the Committee with the number of additional safety inspectors the FAA needs to handle the enforcement caseload; and any additional authorities or tools the FAA needs from Congress to make the prohibition on interference with crew members easier to enforce.

Back in May, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayokas told a news conference that DHS “are not going to tolerate behavior that threatens the wellbeing of the public (or) of the employees that bravely are on the front lines to facilitate the travel for individuals who want to reunite with family and friends.”

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Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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