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Aviation associations demand public prosecution against unruly passengers

written by Isabella Richards | June 23, 2021
Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-8 MAX, pictured at Las Vegas International (Tomás Del Coro/Wikicommons).

In an open letter to the US Department of Justice, numerous aviation associations have called for heightened policies and “stricter legal enforcement” against unruly passengers onboard, as violent instances continue to become more common.

The open letter, addressed on 21 June to Attorney General Merrick Garland, noted increasing concerns over a growing number of unruly passengers.

The letter – signed by various unions and trade organisations including Airlines for America, the AFA, ALPA, CAPA and the RAA, among others – called the government to commit to full public prosecution against violent passengers, in addition to the already hefty fines introduced.

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“We ask that more be done to deter egregious behavior, which is in violation of federal law and crewmember instruction,” said the letter. “Specifically, the federal government should send a strong and consistent message through criminal enforcement that compliance with federal law and upholding aviation safety are of paramount importance.”

Since 1 January, airlines have reported over 3,000 cases of unruly passengers. In comparison with 2020, 194 ‘Unruly Passengers’ were reported to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in total, however, already before May this year numbers climbed to almost 400.

The letter stated the unions were willing to work with the government and the FAA, and appreciated the work they had already done, but believe “making these prosecutions public will put a spotlight on the serious consequences when breaking the law and will act as an effective deterrent against future onboard disruption”.

Section 46504 of Title 49 of the US Code (49 U.S.C. § 46504) prohibits assault or intimidation of a flight crewmember or flight attendant that interferes with the performance of a crewmember’s duties or lessens the ability of the crewmember to perform those duties.

Penalties can include up to 20 years in prison or a range of fines.

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The FAA can propose up to $35,000 per violation for unruly passengers and the Federal Aviation Regulations 91.11, 121.580 and 135.120 state that “no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated”.

Since the pandemic, unruly passenger numbers have soared due to reasons such as mask mandates.

Last month, Vyvianna Quinonez, age 28, was caught on video injuring a crew member on a Southwest flight from Sacramento, resulting in damages to her teeth

This instigated a huge uproar on social media, which was then followed by the American and Southwest airlines’ decision to rethink resumption of alcohol onboard, which is now prohibited until September.

In January, the FAA announced a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy against disruptive behaviour on flights, levying fines as much as $30,000 for over 50 passengers.

In March, FAA administrator Steve Dickson pledged to extend the policy as the numbers were “too high” and required “urgent action”.

However, the letter requests further action to be demonstrated by the US government, enacting higher punishments than fines, enforcing the urgency of this issue to the public.

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