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FAA Adopts Zero Tolerance Policy on Unruly Airline Passengers

As first-line safety officers aboard an airliner, flight attendants lately have had their hands full. (NeONBRAND/Unsplash/)

If you think back to the days when you regularly travelled aboard an airliner, you’ll remember it’s a federal crime to interfere with a flight crewmember carrying out their normal duties. Practically, that usually meant some poor flight attendant trying to deal with a passenger who’d had too much to drink.

Since the pandemic hit the US, however, flight attendants have found even more on their plates, often with people who refuse to don a face covering to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As if flight attendants didn’t have enough to cope with, last week’s assault on the US Capitol Building in Washington added a new problem: people disrupting the cabins of airliners in other ways.

Last week, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson signed an order “directing a stricter legal enforcement policy against unruly airline passengers in the wake of recent, troubling incidents,” following what the agency called in a news release, “a disturbing increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior. These incidents have stemmed both from passengers’ refusals to wear masks and from recent violence at the US Capitol.” This dangerous behavior can distract, disrupt, and threaten crewmembers’ safety functions.” Historically, the agency has addressed unruly-passenger incidents using a variety of methods ranging from warnings and counseling to civil penalties. Effective immediately, however, the FAA will not address these cases with warnings or counseling. The agency will pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members. This policy will be in effect through March 30, 2021.”

Failure to Comply Will Be Costly

The FAA said, “Passengers who interfere with, physically assault, or threaten to physically assault aircraft crew or anyone else on an aircraft face stiff penalties, including fines of up to $35,000 and imprisonment. The agency has already initiated enforcement action against more than 1,300 unruly passengers including some who refused the flight attendant’s order to wear a protective mask.” Dickson spoke to the issue in a recent agency safety video titled, “Zero Tolerance for Unruly Passengers.

Some airlines have initiated their own unique penalties in an attempt to gain passenger compliance. “Delta Air Lines has placed the customers who harassed GOP Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) on its no-fly list (different from the federal no-fly list), company CEO Ed Bastian told Reuters,” according to a story published last week in The Hill. “The senators were seen in viral videos being heckled by supporters of President Trump after both expressed opposition to challenging the Electoral College certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory last week. Video from the day before the vote shows Romney confronted by hecklers at the airport in Salt Lake City and subsequently heckled while aboard a flight to Washington, DC. The Utah senator had previously indicated that he would not challenge the Electoral College vote.” Alaska Airlines also added a number of passengers to its no-fly list following an incident of unruly and disobedient passengers on a flight from Washington DC to Seattle following the January 6 siege in Washington.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) International President Sara Nelson, representing nearly 50,000 Flight Attendants at 17 airlines added in a news release, “Air travel is safe because everyone follows a strict set of rules, based on the spirit that ‘we’re all in this together.’ The mob mentality behavior that took place on several flights to the D.C. area yesterday was unacceptable and threatened the safety and security of every single person onboard. It will not happen again. There’s a reason that there are strict penalties and fines for failing to comply with crewmember instructions. Enforcement keeps everyone safe.

“Our first priority in aviation safety and security is to keep any problems on the ground. Some of the people who traveled in our planes yesterday participated in the insurrection at the Capitol today,” Nelson said. “Their violent and seditious actions at the Capitol created further concern about their departure from the DC area. Acts against our democracy, our government, and the freedom we claim as Americans must disqualify these individuals from the freedom of flight.”

On Nelson’s Twitter feed she said, “First strike and you’re out. We applaud FAA Administrator Dickson for taking this clear stand for our safety and security. This will help serve as a deterrent to unruly passengers who had been bucking the rules of aviation safety. We continue to work with our airlines, the FAA, the TSA and law enforcement to keep our skies safe.”

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