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FBI to weigh prosecuting 37 unruly passengers amid uptick of incidents on planes

The Federal Aviation Administration announced that it has referred 37 cases of unruly passengers to the FBI for further investigation; all 37 occured this year.

Amid a year with an extreme uptick in unruly passengers, the FAA began sending its most serious cases to the FBI in August, an attempt to have cases reviewed further and prosecution to be executed faster. On Thursday, the FAA announced that it had sent 37 cases to the FBI for further review.

U.S. airlines have dealt with a pronounced increase in unruly passenger reports, currently clocking in at 5,033 reports, 950 of those leading to investigations. In 2020, there were a mere 118 investigations, six times lower than this year. Of the reports, 3,642 come from passengers belligerently showing their distaste for wearing a mask, which is required by federal law.

In August the FAA and Justice Department released a joint statement, which said the most serious cases would be referred to the FBI for further investigation. FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson said in a news release this week, “Let this serve both as a warning and a deterrent: If you disrupt a flight, you risk not just fines from the FAA but federal criminal prosecution as well.” It is unclear if any of the 37 cases sent to the FBI have led to federal charges.

Earlier in the year, when the number of reports were beginning to rise, the FAA initiated a “zero tolerance” policy regarding disruptive, threatening, and violent behavior onboard. Offenders could be dealt a blow of a $25,000 civil penalty per incident, which has since been increased to $37,000.

President Joe Biden turned his attention to the increase in incidents in September, condemning anyone who justified harassing or attacking flight attendants and those who refused to wear a mask. In addition, he made sure fines for those noncompliant with mask mandates went up.

Now, first-time offenders receive a minimum fine of $500, which goes up to $3,000 for repeat offenders. “If you break the rules, be prepared to pay. And by the way, show some respect. The anger you see on television toward flight attendants and others doing their job is wrong. It’s ugly,” he said.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA supported the FAA’s joint decision with the Justice Department. The association represents 50,000 flight attendants and 17 airlines and has been pushing for unruly passengers to be held accountable and punished more than they previously have been.

“If a passenger physically assaults crewmembers or other passengers on one airline, they pose a risk to passengers and crew at every airline. They should be banned from flying on all airlines. Period,” President of the AFA-CWA Sara Nelson said.

The disruptions have reportedly affected 85% of flight attendants, with 20% of those encounters becoming physical. In the midst of the investigation into the attack of an American Airlines flight attendant, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has said a no-fly list “should be on the table”. 

ARTICLE: RITA VOGT

MANAGING EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE

PHOTO CREDITS: SEATTLE TIMES

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