Democrats demand more action from feds on unruly airline passengers
September 22, 2021
BY MYCHAEL SCHNELL, The Hill
A pair of Senate Democrats is urging the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to do more to crack down on unruly airline passengers as the number of reports of poor behavior on airplanes skyrockets.
Sens. Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Dick Durbin (Ill) penned letters to Attorney General Merrick Garland and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson on Monday — ahead of a Thursday House hearing on unruly passengers — urging their teams to do more to criminally prosecute perpetrators.
The senators noted in a letter to Garland that the DOJ has “ample authority” to prosecute individuals who commit crimes while aboard an aircraft, including assault.
Cantwell and Durbin said it is “critical” that the DOJ instructs officials to “use these authorities to fully investigate reported incidents on aircraft, and, when supported by the evidence, prosecute those who are criminally responsible.”
“Robust and public efforts to prosecute those who endanger passengers and crewmembers are necessary to deter interference with safe air travel,” they added.
The senators said civil fines alone are “not a sufficient deterrent to curb the recent tide of unruly passengers.”
They urged Dickson in a letter to “increase coordination” with the DOJ to “ensure qualifying passenger behavior is criminally prosecuted.”
They said that despite a spike in unruly passenger incidents, criminal prosecution of individuals has been “limited.”
According to the senators, there have been more than 4,200 reports of unruly passengers this year as of Sept. 14. The majority of those reports — more than 3,100 — were related to masks.
The FAA has started 755 investigations into unruly passengers, they added, which is more than double the numbers from 2019 and 2020 combined.
Additionally, the agency has initiated enforcement actions in 154 cases, which has resulted in more than $1 million in fines.
The senators also cited a survey released in July by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, which found that more than 85 percent of flight attendants have dealt with unruly passengers in the first half of 2021.
Reached for comment, the FAA pointed to a Thursday statement from Dickson saying his agency's "work is having an impact and the trend is moving in the right direction."
"The FAA will continue its Zero Tolerance policy, keep its public awareness campaign going, and keep pushing and partnering with everyone in the aviation system to do more. We appreciate the tremendous work of all our partners in the airline, airport, labor, and law enforcement communities," Dickson said.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation is scheduled to hold a hearing on the surge in unruly passengers on Thursday.
Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA; Christopher Bidwell, the senior vice president of safety at Airports Council International-North America; Lauren Beyer, the vice president of security and facilitation at Airlines for America; and Teddy Andrews, a flight attendant at American Airlines, are all slated to testify.
The Hill has reached out to the DOJ for further comment.