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FAA reaches $1 million benchmark in fines issued to unruly passengers

Date: August 19, 2021

By David Stotnick, The Points Guy

The FAA on Thursday announced its latest round of fines against unruly passengers, passing a major milestone: the agency has now fined passengers a total of over $1 million in 2021.

The latest round of fines, issued against 34 people, represents roughly half of that total, with a total of $531,045 in fines ranging from $7,500 to $42,000.

Details of some of the alleged incidents are fairly extreme, even by the standards set by previous rounds of fines, while many involved violations of the federal mask mandate.

The passenger receiving Thursday’s highest fine allegedly assaulted flight attendants and other passengers, threatening others, snorted cocaine, and — to top it off — refused to follow the federal face mask mandate. The May 16 JetBlue flight from New York to San Francisco was forced to divert to Minneapolis, where the passenger was removed by police.

Another passenger, this one on a Southwest flight from Orlando to Kansas City in January, was fined $32,500 after he allegedly assaulted other passengers for refusing to switch seats with his travel partner and threatened to do worse, although the FAA did not elaborate. The flight, which had not yet taken off, returned to the gate, and the passenger was banned from flying Southwest.

The highest fines all involved physical assault. A passenger who allegedly punched a seated passenger in the face and refused to wear her mask was fined $29,000. Similarly, a passenger on a Frontier flight in March was fined $25,500 after allegedly kicking the bulkhead, shouting obscenities, throwing food and raising her middle fingers in the flight attendant’s face. Others were fined for things like urinating on lavatory floors and refusing to discontinue phone calls during takeoff and threatening to shoot people on the plane.

Other passengers were fined for a variety of reasons including allegedly smoking and vaping on board aircraft, drinking alcohol that they brought on board themselves and shouting obscenities. Two passengers were fined $15,000 just for the alcohol, which the FAA said included refusing to stop drinking it after being told by flight attendants that it violated federal regulations.

At the lower end of the range, eight passengers were each fined $9,000 for a variety of alleged offenses including refusing to wear face masks, hiding a flight attendant’s jacket and punching various parts of the aircraft including windows and tray tables.

An $8,000 was issued against a passenger who allegedly refused to wear her mask, while the lowest fine, $7,500, went to a passenger who allegedly threatened to kill another passenger — he was removed by police when the plane arrived at its destination.

In January, the FAA announced a zero-tolerance policy for unruly behavior aboard flights. The $1 million in fines issued since may only be the tip of the iceberg: The FAA said Thursday that it had received nearly 3,900 reports of unruly passenger behavior, including about 2,870 that involved passengers refusing to wear face masks.

Although the actual number of unruly passengers remains small compared to the total number of people traveling, cases have been on the rise since January. A survey released by the Association of Flight Attendants last month found that 85% of flight attendants had experienced at least one incident this year, while 20% said they’ve encountered physical violence on board aircraft.

Numerous incidents have involved passengers drinking their own alcohol or refusing to wear masks on board flights — the mask mandate on public transportation was extended through January 18, 2022.

Passengers have 30 days to respond to the FAA fines, which are considered a civil penalty. The response can involve an appeal, but there is no guarantee of the fine being changed.

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