In a recent development, American aviation authorities have taken a stern stand against the surge of unruly passenger incidents aboard airline flights. On Monday August 8th, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has escalated its response by referring 22 new additional cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for potential criminal charges, building a total of 39 cases so far for the year of 2023. The allegations encompass a range of offenses including sexual assault, attacks on flight attendants, attempts to breach cockpit security, making terror threats, and smoking in airplane lavatories.
These incidents, which transpired between late 2021 and April of this year, mark a growing concern in the aviation industry. The FAA, which has the power to impose fines of up to $37,000 on misbehaving passengers, lacks the authority to bring criminal charges. Consequently, cases involving severe misconduct are handed over to the FBI for further investigation and potential prosecution.
Reports indicate that the wave of unruly behavior on flights experienced its peak in 2021, largely attributed to frustrations surrounding mask mandates that have since been lifted. Approximately 6,000 incidents were reported that year, compared to 1,161 in 2019 prior to the pandemic’s outbreak. However, this number decreased significantly to around 2,500 in 2022 and currently stands at under 1,200 for the present year, as stated by the FAA.
The latest batch of referrals from the FAA to the FBI include a wide array of offenses. One particular case involves a passenger who reportedly airdropped a bomb threat to fellow travelers in October of last year. In another disturbing instance, dating back to July 2022, a passenger allegedly “sexually/physically assaulted an unaccompanied minor.” Furthermore, an incident that took place this year in April saw a passenger verbally abusing fellow travelers, hurling objects at them, and ultimately requiring restraint.
During the course of its zero-tolerance policy implementation for in-flight misbehavior, the FAA has brought 270 cases to the FBI since late 2021, for “criminal prosecution review”. This policy, which was initiated on January 13, 2021, was crafted as a direct response to the escalating number of disruptive incidents in air travel. The policy’s focus is on imposing civil fines to deter misconduct, but the most severe cases are handed over to the FBI for potential legal action. The consequences can range from substantial fines to jail time.
While a fraction of reported incidents is subjected to investigation, only a smaller subset prompts enforcement actions. The escalation of cases to the FBI is an indication of the severity and persistence of unruly behavior.