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Incidents of Airline Passenger Misconduct Continue

Diminished Frequency, Worsening Unruliness

The Federal Aviation Administration announced on Thursday, 13 April 2023 that it has referred 17 additional unruly passenger cases to the FBI for criminal prosecution review, thereby bringing the total number of such cases since 2021 to a worrying total of 250.

Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen stated unequivocally: “If you act out on a plane, you should just stay at home because we will come after you with serious consequences. …We have zero tolerance for unruly behavior.”

Incidents of passenger unruliness in 2023 include alleged assaults of female passengers; assaults of flight attendants; inappropriate touching; and one instance in which a passenger refused to remain seated, acted erratically, and insisted he needed to fly the aircraft. So states the FAA.

In 2021, following skyrocketing complaints of erratic passenger behavior, the FBI and FAA partnered for purpose of streamlining criminal review of unruly passenger cases. The FAA, in 2021, investigated 1,113 unruly passenger incidents, of which 37 were forwarded to the FBI for criminal review.

The FAA is empowered to levy civil fines but lacks authority to file criminal charges, ergo, wanton instances of passenger incivility are turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The FBI maintains a reticent tenor vis-à-vis the regularity with which it acts on FAA referrals of unruly passengers. FBI Assistant Director Luis Quesada provided no hard numbers, setting forth, instead, that the bureau is “committed to investigating all incidents that fall within FBI jurisdiction aboard commercial flights.”

In 2022, reported incidents of unruly passengers dropped by almost half—with the FAA investigating 831 such occurrences. Nevertheless, by February 2022, the FAA had passed eighty cases of potentially criminal passenger behavior on to the FBI for further review.

Airlines reported fewer cases of unruly passengers following a federal judge’s April 2022 ruling which struck down mask mandates aboard public transportation—to include commercial aircraft. Prior to subject ruling, approximately two-thirds of all unruly passenger incidents arose from disputes over masks.

The FBI investigates instances of passenger misconduct comprising sexual misconduct, assault, interference with fellow passengers, and theft aboard aircraft.  Among the more egregious COVID and post-COVID era incidents of idiocy-on-the-wing include a Texas man who, upon landing in Montana, pleaded guilty to groping a young girl; a woman convicted of assaulting two people on a flight from Buffalo to Chicago; and a Washington man who pleaded guilty to assaulting a flight attendant. Most recently, passengers aboard a flight from Los Angeles to Boston worked together to subdue a man who prosecutors allege tried to open one of the aircraft’s emergency door before attempting to stab a flight attendant with a broken metal spoon.

In March 2023, lawmakers reintroduced legislation seeking to establish a program permanently revoking the flight privileges of passengers fined or convicted by a court of unruly behavior aboard an aircraft. A similar proposal backed by airline unions failed to gain traction in 2022 when conservatives and civil libertarians pointed out it circumvented due-process—a Constitutional guarantee with which the Biden administration has selectively dispensed.



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