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Airlines, unions ask the attorney general to crack down on passenger violence

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Organizations representing airlines and workers sent letters to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday urging stricter enforcement and consequences for violent passengers after a year of increased incidents.

Together, corporations and their workers are requesting the Department of Justice and Federal Aviation Administration push for “public prosecution” of passengers who act violently onboard flights. The letter was sent by 10 different organizations, including Airlines for America, Allied Pilots Association, Transport Workers Union of America, and Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

“Specifically, the federal government should send a strong and consistent message through criminal enforcement that compliance with federal law and upholding aviation safety are of paramount importance,” the letter said.

They later added that the enforcement should be “consistent and vigorous” by sending egregious cases to federal prosecutors.

A separate letter was sent from Airlines for America to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, thanking him for his commitment to inflight safety but also urging the agency to push for more strict punishments. Though the FAA has pushed for a “zero tolerance” policy for unruly passengers, it appeared many passengers have still not gotten the message, the organization wrote.

“Unfortunately, we continue to see onboard behavior deteriorating into heinous acts, including assaults, threats and intimidation of crewmembers that directly interfere with the performance of crewmember duties and jeopardize the safety and security of everyone onboard the aircraft,” Airlines for America said.

The letter also requested that Dickson direct the FAA to begin referring cases to federal prosecutors, going beyond the fines and lifetime flying bans to actual criminal enforcement. Airlines for America also asked that Dickson amplify its “zero tolerance” message.

“We respectfully request that the FAA and other federal agencies amplify the messaging to reach all travelers about the proposed penalties in addition to using all resources, including the media, to put a very public spotlight on the sentences handed down to perpetrators,” Airlines for America said. “It will send a powerful message if the flying public sees that perpetrators are truly paying hefty fines and are going to jail after being convicted.”

A passenger wears a face mask she travels on a flight from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on Feb. 3, 2021.Charlie Riedel / AP file

Last month, the FAA said it found a large increase in unruly passenger reports despite the pandemic leading to a decline in airline travel. Typically the agency gets about 100 to 150 formal cases of bad passenger behavior.

But the number of reported cases has jumped to 1,300 since the beginning of the year.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, said last month that the physical and verbal abuse that flight attendants have allegedly experienced this year has been “way off the charts” compared to the last 20 years.

“What we have seen on our planes is flight attendants being physically assaulted, pushed, choked,” Nelson said. “We have a passenger urinate. We had a passenger spit into the mouth of a child on board.”

Last year on an Allegiant Air flight to Provo, Utah, a fight broke out when a passenger refused to wear a face mask. The passenger, who was wearing a face shield but not a mask, got into an argument with a flight attendant and a fist fight broke out between him and another man.

Last month, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant lost two teeth after a passenger physically assaulted her on a flight from Sacramento, California, to San Diego. The airline said the passenger “repeatedly ignored standard inflight instructions and became verbally and physically abusive upon landing.”

The FAA proposed fines for five different passengers who violated federal aviation regulations, from refusing to wear masks to assault, totaling more than $60,000. In one incident on a JetBlue flight from Miami to Los Angeles on Feb. 22, a passenger in the main cabin attacked a flight attendant, according to the FAA.

When the attendant retrieved the items given to the main cabin passenger from a passenger in first class, the main cabin passenger allegedly “yelled obscenities,” followed him to first-class and assaulted the steward with her body, “pushing him into the lavatory,” the agency said. The flight was diverted to Austin, Texas, where the main-cabin passenger was removed.


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