The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reported that it has referred more than three-dozen unruly airline passengers to the FBI for further investigation. This action is part of the FAA’s zero-tolerance policy towards disruptive travelers, and the agency has vowed to aggressively pursue criminal penalties for their actions.
On Tuesday, the FAA referred an additional 22 passengers to the FBI, bringing the total number of referrals for this year to 39. In a statement, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg emphasized that anyone who acts out on an airplane can face criminal prosecution and a fine of up to $37,000.
These referrals cover incidents that have occurred since December 2021. The offenses range from passengers becoming violent towards crew members or fellow passengers to engaging in erratic behavior on board. Some passengers have even attempted to enter the cockpit without permission or made terroristic threats. One suspect allegedly even texted a bomb threat to other passengers, while another was caught smoking in the airplane lavatory.
As a result of these referrals, the passengers involved could now face criminal charges, fines, or both. The FAA’s stricter approach to dealing with unruly passengers began in 2021 when it adopted a zero-tolerance rule due to a sharp increase in incidents. Federal statistics show that nearly 6,000 disruptive passengers were reported in 2021 alone, a 492% spike compared to the previous year. However, the number of incidents has decreased significantly since then, with fewer than 2,500 incidents in 2022 and only 1,177 incidents so far this year.
In 2022, the government levied $8.4 million in fines against unruly passengers, following more than 800 separate investigations and 567 law enforcement actions. Previously, the FAA primarily dealt with unruly passengers using civil fines alone. However, the increase in cases prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to order prosecutors across the country to prioritize criminal charges in late 2021.
Interfering with an airline crew is a federal crime that carries severe criminal penalties, including prison terms of up to 20 years, especially under aggravated circumstances. If a flight crew member is assaulted or threatened with a dangerous weapon, the punishment could be increased to life behind bars. For example, a Massachusetts man was accused of attempting to stab an airline attendant with a broken spoon in March and initially faced a life sentence. However, he was later ruled not competent for trial due to mental illness.
The FAA’s zero-tolerance policy and the referral of unruly passengers to the FBI reflect the aviation industry’s commitment to ensuring the safety and security of air travel. By pursuing criminal charges, the FAA sends a strong message that disruptive behavior on airplanes will not be tolerated, and offenders will face serious consequences for their actions.