The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed civil penalties ranging from $9,000 to $15,000 against five airline passengers for allegedly interfering with and, in two cases, assaulting flight attendants who instructed them to obey cabin crew instructions and various federal regulations.
These most recent enforcement actions announced on May 24 are part of the FAA’s zero-tolerance policy for unruly and dangerous behavior by passengers. Since Jan. 1, 2021, the FAA has received approximately 2,500 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, including about 1,900 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal facemask mandate.
The cases are as follows:
- $15,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 22, 2021, jetBlue Airlines flight from Miami, Fla., to Los Angeles, Calif. The passenger was seated in the main cabin. The FAA alleges another passenger brought her a glass of champagne, headset and food from the first-class section. A flight attendant noticed the main-cabin passenger had those items, picked them up, and carried them back to the first-class section. The main-cabin passenger yelled obscenities at the flight attendant and followed him to the first-class section, then assaulted the flight attendant by hitting him with her body and almost pushing him into the lavatory. As a result of her actions, the captain diverted the plane to Austin, Texas, where the main-cabin passenger was removed from the aircraft.
- $15,000 against a passenger on a Jan. 10, 2021, jetBlue Airlines flight from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to Los Angeles, Calif. The FAA alleges the passenger twice drank his own alcohol after flight attendants told him it was prohibited. The passenger also talked on his cell phone during the flight. After the flight attendant again told him those activities were not allowed, he repeatedly yelled at the flight attendant. Flight attendants notified the pilots about the passenger’s behavior, which distracted them from performing their duties.
- $15,000 against a passenger on a Jan. 7, 2021, Alaska Airlines flight from Washington-Dulles International Airport to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The FAA alleges the passenger pushed and/or shoved a flight attendant when flight attendants walked down the aisle to document which passengers were not wearing facemasks.
- $10,500 against a passenger on a March 17, 2021, jetBlue Airlines flight from Orlando, Fla., to New York City. The FAA alleges that after the boarding door had closed and following multiple announcements about the requirement to wear facemasks, the passenger was not wearing his facemask or not wearing it so it covered his mouth and nose. Flight attendants repeatedly instructed him to wear his facemask properly. Each time, he failed to comply with the instructions and used profanity. A flight attendant knelt down next to him, quietly asked him to lower his voice, and reminded him of the facemask requirement. He refused to comply and continued to yell and use profanity. Flight attendants notified the captain, who called for a station agent and ground security coordinator to board the aircraft. When they arrived and asked the passenger to get off the plane, he became combative and irate and loudly refused to get off. The captain then called for law enforcement. After law enforcement arrived, the passenger continued to be combative and irate and initially refused to get off the aircraft. When he gathered his belongings to leave the plane, he started screaming at a flight attendant. The passenger’s actions delayed the flight’s departure by 28 minutes.
- $9,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 20, 2021, Southwest Airlines flight from Oakland, Calif., to Houston, Texas. The FAA alleges a flight attendant asked the passenger to pull his facemask up so it covered his nose. The passenger refused to comply with the instruction. The flight attendant then gave the passenger a mask, and he threw it on the floor, saying he would not wear it. The flight attendant explained the CDC and TSA mask requirement again and asked the passenger to acknowledge what she was saying. He said he would not comply with the policy and that facemask-wearing would not be enforced in Texas. The cabin crew alerted the captain about the passenger’s behavior, and the captain arranged for law enforcement to meet the aircraft when it arrived in Houston.
The passengers have 30 days after receiving the FAA’s enforcement letter to respond to the agency. The FAA does not identify individuals against whom it proposes civil penalties.
The FAA announcement comes as Southwest Airlines issued a lifetime ban for a passenger who allegedly struck a flight attendant, knocking out two teeth. And the flight attendant’s Transport Workers Union has published an open letter, calling for better protection for airline staff.
Airlines and the FAA have reported an increasing number of unruly passengers, and some of these turn into physical altercations. Many of these are tied to mask compliance.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on May 14 reminded the traveling public that at this time, 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, and 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 strictly enforcing a zero-tolerance policy toward passengers who cause disturbances on flights or fail to obey flight crew instructions in violation of the FAA’s regulations or engage in conduct proscribed by federal law.
On May 25, 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.”