People wait in the line to clear through the TSA checkpoint at Miami International Airport on Nov. 24. The TSA is expecting airline passenger numbers to reach pre-pandemic level the day before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest days at airports across the country. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The Justice Department said Wednesday afternoon that it will prioritize prosecuting passengers who have assaulted airline crews, as travel spikes for what is set to be the busiest holiday season since the pandemic took hold.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said he has instructed U.S. attorneys to elevate prosecuting crimes against air crews — including assault, threats, intimidation or interference with carrying out their duties.
Not only do passengers violate federal law when they harm employees, “they prevent the performance of critical duties that help ensure safe air travel,” Garland said in a letter to his workforce. “Similarly, when passengers commit violent acts against other passengers in the close confines of a commercial aircraft, the conduct endangers everyone aboard.”
Though the FAA has instituted a zero-tolerance policy against mask noncompliance and other bad behavior and has handed out record numbers of fines, unions for flight crews have complained that prosecutions at DOJ have lagged behind and have urged the administration to do more to penalize the behavior.
Earlier this month, the FAA referred 37 cases of egregious behavior from travelers to DOJ, noting that it believes all of them meet the standard for potential criminal prosecution. An FAA spokesperson on Wednesday said it has not passed on additional cases since.
“The unacceptable disruptive behavior that we’re seeing is a serious safety threat to flights, and we’re committed to our partnership with the DOJ to combat it,” said FAA administrator Steve Dickson.
Background: The FAA and DOJ have established an information-sharing protocol for the FAA to refer unruly passenger cases to the FBI for criminal case review. The increased coordination came as a result of a joint meeting in August where the agencies discussed a better method to pass along the most serious cases for potential criminal prosecution.
Passengers are not only subject to criminal prosecution — the FAA can also propose civil penalties of up to $37,000 per violation. In one recent case, the FAA suggested a fine totaling more than $40,000 for a man accused of drinking, smoking marijuana and sexual assault on a Southwest Airlines flight in April.
Per the FAA’s latest statistics, there have been 5,338 reported unruly passenger incidents this year, 3,856 of which were related to mask compliance. The agency has initiated 1,012 investigations and taken action in 266 cases.
DOJ has previously said that it had charged 25 people for interference with flight crew members over the last 13 months, but earlier this month a spokesperson could not detail how many of these cases have been prosecuted.
Calls for no-fly list: Aside from prosecutions, leaders of unions for flight crews and transportation workers have repeatedly pressed for the creation of a database that would incorporate lists of people who have been banned from flying with individual airlines. The idea has the support of House Transportation Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who has suggested a "common database" where airlines can share lists of banned passengers among themselves. However, there has yet to be any movement to institute such a thing.
What’s next: Garland has additionally directed the attorneys to communicate “to the relevant federal, state, local, Tribal, and territorial prosecutorial authorities and law enforcement agencies” — including airport law enforcement— within their districts that these cases should be given utmost priority. “Contact with the appropriate agency or agencies should be made as soon as possible within the next 20 days,” Garland said.