House Democrats urge Justice Dept. to prosecute unruly airline passengers

House Democrats urge Justice Dept. to prosecute unruly airline passengers

November 3, 2021 – House Democrats are calling on the Justice Department to use its authorities to investigate and prosecute unruly airline passengers amid a surge in crews having to deal with confrontational behavior during flights.

In a letter addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday, the six House Democrats led by Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas urged the Justice Department to put forth more resources to combat the problem of spiking disruptive and violent incidents aboard planes that include the targeting of flight staff.

Text of the letter

November 1, 2021

The Honorable Merrick Garland
Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530

Dear Attorney General Garland:

We write today to express our concern regarding the disturbing instances of air and airport passenger rage. It is well documented that our nation has witnessed a sharp increase in air and airport confrontational behavior, particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to a dramatic increase in unruly and disruptive passenger behavior onboard aircraft toward crewmembers and toward passenger service agents at airports.

According to FAA statistics as of October 3, there have been 4,626 reports of unruly passenger incidents this year, 3,366 of which were mask related. Alarmingly, these incidents, some of which consist of outright egregious and unimaginably violent behavior, put passengers and crew members in grave danger.

Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) instituted a zero-tolerance policy against unruly passengers, requiring agency safety inspectors to conduct enforcement investigations against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crewmembers. However, to ensure the safety and security of everyone onboard commercial aircraft, the Department of Justice (DOJ) must commit to similarly robust enforcement efforts. Moreover, numerous incidents involving violent behavior have been committed against passenger service agents as well, which are not tracked by the FAA. We strongly believe that documenting these incidents directed towards service agents should be recorded and acted upon by the Department of Justice.

The Department of Justice has ample authority to prosecute those who commit crimes while onboard an aircraft. Those who interfere with the performance of a crewmembers' duties can be prosecuted under 49 U.S.C. (code) 46504. Additionally, 49 U.S.C. (code) 46506 provides DOJ with the authority to prosecute those who commit other crimes onboard aircraft, including assault.

It is vital that DOJ direct federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors to use their authority to fully investigate reported incidents on aircraft and, when supported by evidence, prosecute those who are criminally responsible. Indisputably, robust efforts to prosecute those who endanger passengers and crewmembers are necessary to deter interference with safe air travel.

Another area of significant concern to us is that due to tight flight schedules, many crew members do not feel like they have ample time to fill out a police report, which can take hours to complete. As a result, flight attendants often fail to speak to law enforcement or report these serious incidents. We believe there needs to be a system put in place that could allow flight attendants time to file a report, yet still arrive on time for their next flight. We suggest that exceptions be made to allow for the handling of these cases to exceed the current statute of limitations time limit, given the seriousness of the violations and the constraints on flight attendants to properly file.

We thank the Department of Justice in advance for your consideration and we respectfully request that you immediately direct federal prosecutors to dedicate the resources necessary to prosecute cases involving onboard acts of violence. We also respectfully request that you inform us as to the number of people that have been prosecuted for unruly passenger behavior thus far.


cc: The Honorable Steve Dickson, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration

PDF of the letter

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