Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) has sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (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’s letter cited various examples including an incident in May when a passenger reportedly punched a Southwest flight attendant in the face, causing grievous injuries that included the loss of two teeth.
The number of air rage incidents subject to enforcement investigations has indeed skyrocketed, and are currently almost twice the previous peak of enforcement investigations into air rage incidents. DeFazio also noted a recent survey by the Association of Flight Attendants, querying more than 5,000 flight attendants across mainline and regional airlines, which found that 17 percent of flight attendants—nearly one in five—reported physical injury during passenger-related altercations in flight. Fifty-eight percent reported at least five incidents of unruly passenger behavior this year, and 85 percent said they had experienced at least one such incident this year.
“Some incidents appear to relate to passengers’ reckless disregard of the commonsense federal requirement that they must wear masks while on board an aircraft and in an airport,” DeFazio wrote. “But it would be naïve to ascribe all such incidents to the mask mandate; we may be seeing the reemergence of a spate of air rage incidents that plagued the airlines in the late 1990s and early aughts, the causes of which were as varied as the circumstances themselves.”
Unruly behavior on board an aircraft does not go unpunished by the FAA. The agency has statutory authority to pursue civil enforcement action and a $37,000 fine against any passenger who assaults a crew member or other passenger, or who otherwise commits any act that endangers the safety of the aircraft. It is also a federal crime that can land a perpetrator in prison for up to 20 years for interfering with the performance of a crew member’s duties.
But DeFazio cautioned that “judicial authorities could take an unreasonably narrow view of the meaning of ‘interference’ for purposes of the statutes and regulations”. He added that “clarification would be helpful to enhance the chances of success in actions to hold unruly passengers accountable for their behavior” and that he would welcome the FAA’s suggestions regarding appropriate statutory changes.
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.