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Washington D.C.
Friday, June 2, 2023

Unruly Passenger Incidents Fall by Over 80 Percent

The FBI recently launched a Crimes Aboard Aircraft webpage with information about the types of crimes committed on board an aircraft it investigates, such as assault, sexual misconduct and theft, and how people can report them.

Thanks largely to a zero-tolerance policy with high profile public awareness campaigns and stricter penalties, the rate of unruly passenger incidents has dropped by over 80 percent since record-highs in early 2021. Another factor that has undoubtedly had an impact is a change in mask wearing requirements on board flights, non-compliance of which was often a causative factor in abusive passenger incidents over the past few years.

However, unacceptable behavior continues to occur, often fueled by alcohol. Unruly passenger incidents may compromise flight safety, cause significant delays and operational disruption, and adversely impact the travel experience and work environment for passengers and crew. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pursues action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crewmembers.

“If you act out on a plane, you should just stay at home because we will come after you with serious consequences,” said Acting Federal Aviation Administrator Billy Nolen, a former commercial airline pilot. “We have zero tolerance for unruly behavior.”

As part of the FAA’s Reauthorization Bill, the agency can propose up to $37,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases. The FAA has civil authority, allowing it to impose fines but it does not have criminal prosecutorial authority. Consequently, the FAA has referred several unruly passenger cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for criminal prosecution review in the first quarter of 2023. These include the following incidents:

  • March 2023: Tried to open an aircraft door and use a makeshift weapon to assault a flight attendant.
  • Jan. 2023: Inappropriately touched a 17-year-old passenger.
  • Jan. 2023: Refused to remain seated, acted erratically, said he needed to fly the aircraft.
  • Jan. 2023: Assaulted a female passenger.
  • Jan. 2023: Assaulted a flight attendant.
  • Jan. 2023: Sexually assaulted a passenger.
  • Dec. 2022: Passenger assaulted his wife.
  • Dec. 2022: Assaulted flight attendants and passengers.
  • Dec. 2022: Tried to strike a flight attendant and enter the flight deck.
  • Dec. 2022: Assaulted, threatened and intimidated flight attendants.
  • Dec. 2022: Assaulted another passenger.
  • Dec. 2022: Inappropriately touched another passenger.
  • July 2022:  Threatened and intimidated flight attendants and passengers.
  • July 2022:  Assaulted another passenger.
  • July 2022:  Threatened flight attendants and passenger.
  • April 2022:  Sexually assaulted a flight attendant.
  • April 2022:  Assaulted a flight attendant and passenger, deployed evacuation slide.

The FAA has referred more than 250 of the most serious cases to the FBI since late 2021 under a partnership aimed at ensuring unruly airline passengers face criminal prosecution when warranted. 

“The FBI will continue to work with our FAA partners to ensure the safety of all passengers and to combat violence aboard commercial flights,” said FBI Assistant Director Luis Quesada of the Criminal Investigative Division. “We remain committed to investigating all incidents that fall within FBI jurisdiction aboard commercial flights.” 

The FBI recently launched a Crimes Aboard Aircraft webpage with information about the types of crimes committed on board an aircraft it investigates, such as assault, sexual misconduct and theft, and how people can report them. The FBI also investigates violence against persons and property at international airports where the victim or offender is a United States national or if the offender is located within the U.S. Interfering with airport security screening personnel ahead of a flight, including airport employees or airline employees working at the gate, also falls under the FBI’s investigative responsibility, as do bomb threats whether they are made on the ground or in-flight.

Internationally, the Montreal Protocol 2014 (MP14) enables countries other than the country of registration to exercise jurisdiction over unruly passengers. This resolves an existing gap in international aviation law that often results in those accused of unruly behavior not being prosecuted for their misbehavior. In a survey, 60% of International Air Transport Association (IATA) member airlines cited lack of jurisdiction as a key factor for why prosecutions do not proceed.

IATA recently welcomed the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ratification of MP14 to strengthen the global legal deterrent against unruly and disruptive passenger incidents onboard flights.

“IATA welcomes the leadership shown by the UAE in ratifying MP14,” said Kamil Al-Awadhi, IATA’s Regional Vice President Africa & Middle East. “Not only will this give the UAE authorities important new powers in dealing with unruly passengers that land in the country, but as a major aviation market and International Civil Aviation Organization Council member, it will also encourage other States to ratify MP14. Ensuring greater international harmonization and strengthening the legal deterrent against unruly and disruptive passengers who pose a threat to passenger and crew wellbeing and safety onboard is a priority for the entire airline industry.” 

Under MP14, effective from May 1, authorities in the UAE will have the jurisdiction to manage unruly and disruptive passengers that land in the country, irrespective of where the aircraft is registered. The UAE is the 44th country to ratify MP14 and it is estimated that more than a third of international traffic is covered by nations that are parties to it.  

See the latest trends on unruly passengers at the FAA


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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