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Global Call for Unruly Passenger Legislation Review as FAA Announces Latest Offenders

After an unprecedented rise, the rate of unruly passenger incidents on commercial flights from the U.S. is now in decline, but there are calls for governments worldwide to review their legislation.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is proposing $225,287 in civil penalties against 10 airline passengers for alleged unruly behavior involving physical assault in the latest round of action against air rage. The highest charge was for a woman who punched her own family and stole cookies from a fellow passenger.

Federal law prohibits passengers from assaulting fellow passengers or crew aboard a flight. Since January 1, 2021, the FAA has received more than 100 reports of passenger disturbances involving physical assault. Unruly behavior on a flight is not only dangerous, but can be extremely costly and disruptive as aircraft often have to return to their departure airport in order to hand the disruptive passenger over to law enforcement officers.

The FAA lacks criminal prosecutorial authority but has referred cases to the Department of Justice where the evidence supports criminal review. 

The new cases announced on November 10 are:

  • $32,000 against a passenger on a May 18, 2021, Horizon Air flight from Austin, Texas, to San Francisco, Calif. The FAA alleges the passenger did not follow crew instruction to fasten her seatbelt. She punched and screamed at her husband and son, repeatedly, diverting flight attendants from their duties. She threw trash at a flight attendant, and snatched cookies from a nearby passenger. 
  • $20,000 against a passenger on a Jan. 4, 2021, Delta Air Lines flight from New York, N.Y., to Los Angeles, Calif. The FAA alleges the passenger yelled orders at multiple flight attendants while the plane taxied from the gate. He removed his seatbelt, left his seat while the fastened seatbelt sign was on, and refused to return to his seat after a flight attendant instructed him to do so. He threatened a flight attendant by saying he was going to “[expletive] up his a**.” While moving up and down the aisle during taxiing, he made physical contact with a flight attendant, and continued yelling profanities. The flight returned to the gate and law enforcement officers were forced to board the flight to remove the man. 
  • $26,787 against a passenger on a May 5, 2021, Southwest Airlines flight from New York City to Chicago, Ill. The FAA alleges that during final descent and despite crew instruction to remain seated, he left his seat and attempted to enter the cockpit. Flight attendants did not consider his actions to be aggressive but determined he needed additional observation. After he returned to his seat, he incorrectly thought the aircraft was already at the gate and attempted to remove his luggage from the overhead bin. Flight attendants coaxed him to the back of the aircraft and sat him on the floor to ensure he remained seated during landing. While the aircraft braked during touchdown, flight attendants attempted to hold him down to keep him from injuring himself. He began punching one of the flight attendants. The flight attendant required medical attention. Law enforcement met the passenger at the arrival gate. 
  • $25,000 against a passenger on a Feb. 3, 2021, Southwest Airlines flight from Boston, Mass., to Chicago Ill. The FAA alleges the passenger refused crew instruction to stow her carry-on luggage in the overhead bin. Crew instructed her to exit the aircraft and speak with ground station personnel. Ground station personnel informed her that she could not continue with the flight. She re-boarded the aircraft to collect her carry-on luggage. Instead, she sat in a seat, held onto the armrest, shouted loudly and aggressively, and used derogatory language and obscene gestures towards the crewmember. As she disembarked, she broke loose from a travel companion’s grip and spat on a crewmember. Police met her at the gate. 
  • $24,000 against a passenger on a Jan. 21, 2021, American Airlines flight from Tampa, Fla., to Miami, Fla. The FAA alleges that the passenger failed to follow crew instruction to wear her facemask during boarding. The passenger and her travel companions were disruptive while the aircraft stayed at the gate due to a minor mechanical issue. Several passengers requested a seat reassignment to avoid the group. A flight attendant asked her to wear her facemask but she removed it as the flight attendant walked away. The captain requested to remove her from the aircraft. On her way off the plane, she physically assaulted the flight attendant by shoving her in the chest. 
  • $24,000 against a passenger on a March 28, 2021, Southwest Airlines flight from New Orleans, La., to Baltimore, Md. The FAA alleges that a flight attendant instructed her to comply with the facemask policy. As the flight attendant continued trash pick-up, she intentionally elbowed him in the side and kicked him. This behavior was reported to the captain who locked down the cockpit and requested law enforcement to meet the woman at the gate. 
  • $24,000 against a passenger on a Dec. 27, 2020, Delta Air Lines flight from Detroit, Mich., to Salt Lake City, Utah. The FAA alleges she refused to follow crew instructions to wear her mask, threatened crewmembers, cursed at crewmembers and shoved a crewmember. 
  • $23,000 against a passenger on a March 11, 2021, American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, to Aspen, Colo. The FAA alleges that the passenger verbally abused flight attendants after she realized her assigned seat would not recline. Multiple passengers offered to switch seats with her, but she repeatedly declined and kept yelling at flight attendants. She agreed to switch seats with another passenger but continued to verbally abuse flight attendants. She then struck a flight attendant on the right forearm, and attempted to do so again. Further, she repeatedly refused to comply with the facemask policy. Law enforcement met her at the arrival gate. 
  • $17,500 against a passenger on a Nov. 7, 2020, jetBlue Airlines flight from Newark, N.J., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The FAA alleges the passenger used profane language and physically assaulted a flight crewmember. The man yelled at the crewmember to “get his fat a** out of my face,” and then pushed him. The captain diverted the flight to Richmond, Va. Police met the passenger at the gate. 
  • $9,000 against a passenger on a March 20, 2021, American Airlines flight from Cancun, Mexico, to Indianapolis, Ind. As the flight descended, he stomped and/or kicked the feet of the passenger seated behind him. The captain asked police to meet the flight at the arrival gate. 

After an unprecedented rise, the rate of unruly passenger incidents on commercial flights from the U.S. is now in decline – helped by FAA’s zero tolerance and public awareness campaign – but the rate remains too high. 

The U.S. is not alone, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) calling on governments worldwide to review their laws regarding passengers’ behavior.

In 2020, the rate of incidents doubled globally, and that trend is continuing in 2021. In an informal survey of IATA’s Cabin Operations Safety Technical Group, one member airline reported over 1,000 incidents of non-compliance in a single week. Another calculated a 55% increase in unruly passenger incidents based on the numbers carried.

Mask mandates have contributed to unacceptable behavior from passengers who, despite agreeing to do so when booking their flight, decide they do not want to wear a mask on board.

“One explanation for the hike in incidents is that the context has changed,” Tim Colehan, IATA’s Assistant Director, Government and Industry Affairs told the IATA Airlines publication. “Not wearing a mask is arguably no different to not wearing a seatbelt or not putting your laptop away. They involve a failure to follow instructions. But because of the pandemic and the public health implications, not wearing a mask makes it much more personal and has caused confrontation between passengers. It has also led to governments, such as the United States to take a zero-tolerance approach and to encourage incident reporting by crew.”

Internationally, the Montreal Protocol 2014 (MP14), which entered into force on January 1, 2020, gives jurisdiction to the country in which an aircraft lands. IATA explains that where countries have ratified MP14 and implemented appropriate local laws, enforcement authorities have the jurisdiction to deal with unruly passengers that arrive in their territory, irrespective of where the aircraft is registered. Approximately one third of international traffic are covered by MP14, with more countries expected to follow.

Elsewhere, the ageing Tokyo Convention (1963) regulates unruly passenger incidents. However, this does not automatically allow most states to prosecute a disruptive passenger who has been removed from an inbound foreign registered aircraft.

IATA wants all countries to take up MP14, even those who have their own laws for dealing with unruly passengers. In addition, the association says wider use of civil and administrative penalties as set out in an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) manual would create an “efficient and effective deterrent”. This could be in the form of fines that are handed out on arrival by police much like the system in place for speeding offenses in vehicles.

“Criminal prosecution remains an option for more serious incidents with large fines or prison sentences,” says Colehan. “These offenses must be enforced vigorously, and the consequences of such behavior publicized.”

The challenges posed by unruly passengers will be discussed at the upcoming virtual IATA Cabin Ops Safety Conference, on December 7-8.

ICAO warns that an act of unlawful interference could begin as unruly and disruptive behavior, and says that airline crew and ground staff should be made more aware and taught to recognize the warning signs and triggers such as alcohol and flight delays.

Preventing the escalation of such behavior could of course be an important factor in avoiding more serious threats to safety and security. ICAO therefore wants airlines to implement strategies which include raising awareness, introducing a zero tolerance policy, and enforcement of measures against unruly and disruptive passengers.

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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