Aviation and Crime: recent cases

Share this article: FacebooktwitterlinkedinFacebooktwitterlinkedin

Some acts committed in aviation carry criminal sanctions

Primary reason for the sanction- protect aviation safety

Some recent cases as examples

There is a body of law and policy which argues that use of criminal law in aviation should be avoided. Much of the logic supporting that view derives from the problems caused when an accident investigation and criminal inquiry intersect, the determination of convictions (guilt) and findings of probable cause (future aviation safety) create conflict.

With the cases discussed below, full imposition of criminal punishment seems warranted, if the evidence is sufficient.

Texas Man Charged for Midair Meltdown Challenges Law, Saying it Was Just Rudeness

[not a picture of the Texas incident]

When does being a jerk rise to the level of becoming a felony when you’re 30,000 feet in the air?

A federal judge intends to decide the matter.

Justin Riley Brafford’s behavior in the sky while aboard a Southwest Airlines flight in October 2018 is the conduct in question. The 29-year-old Denton man flirted with a woman next to him, touching and “playing footsies” with her, according to an FBI complaint. When she rebuffed his advances and requested a new seat, a flight attendant scolded him.

Brafford, 29, didn’t take it well. He threw a profanity-laced tantrum in the attendant’s face for about 30 seconds and then sat down and kept quiet for the duration of the flight, according to court records.

The flight attendant, passengers and other crew members were intimidated by Brafford’s “belligerent manner,” federal authorities say, leading the pilot to divert the Dallas-bound flight to Albuquerque, where the FBI arrested him.

But in legal filings, Brafford’s attorney says the government wants to punish him merely for “deviating from the socially acceptable norms of airline travel.”

John Van Butcher, his attorney, said his client didn’t make any threats and didn’t lay a finger on the flight attendant, who is physically larger, during the brief encounter. He is challenging the federal law, arguing that it’s vague and unconstitutional. Brafford has requested a bench trial, which is currently scheduled for the end of the month.

The flight attendant believed Brafford was “not acting like a normal person and seemed to have gone from ‘zero to sixty in nano-seconds,‘” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Presiliano A. Torrez, of the District of New Mexico.

Civility in air travel seems more of a rarity these days. The internet is full of videos of unruly airline passengers flipping out, fighting and being dragged off planes. Butcher said, however, that he’s not aware of any cases of a passenger being convicted for a brief outburst. He says the hassles of air travel have stressed passengers and crew members to such an extent that blowups are inevitable.

If convicted, Brafford faces up to 20 years in prison.

Brafford, an admitted drug addict, had been released from a California state prison on parole days before his scheduled travel to Dallas to stay with his aunt, according to court records.

As the Southwest plane prepared to depart Los Angeles on Oct. 16, 2018, Brafford put his arm on the leg of a woman sitting next to him, according to the criminal complaint.

The woman asked him to stop but he continued, resting his head on her shoulder, tugging at her sweater and rubbing his feet against hers, the complaint said. He also asked her for her name, where she lived, and if she was “staying alone in her hotel room.” Brafford’s request for a date was turned down, and he began whispering threats at her, according to the complaint.

The woman asked a flight attendant for a seat change and was moved toward the back of the plane, the complaint said.

The flight attendant, who is identified by his initials in court documents, got her a free drink and noticed she was crying when he returned. The woman told him that Brafford had walked to the back of the plane and confronted her. The flight attendant said he told Brafford to “leave it alone” in a quiet voice.

Brafford jumped to his feet and yelled at him, shouting something like, “this is not happening, we’re not doing this,” the complaint said. His “erratic behavior” led the flight attendant to think Brafford was on drugs. The attendant spoke to the pilot and said he thought they needed to divert the flight and remove Brafford “before anything else happened,” the complaint said.

The emergency landing delayed the flight by an hour and a half and disrupted the travel plans of some passengers, the complaint said.

Brafford told police after the plane landed that the female passenger had put her arm on his and that he thought she was flirting.

“Brafford said he felt like they were connecting and decided to put his hand on the side of [victim’s] leg, but felt like he went too far, may have misread the situation and removed it,” the complaint said.

Brafford told police that after the woman was moved, he approached her and told her that “if he was bothering her, all she needed to do was tell him.” Then he returned to his seat.

When the flight attendant told him to leave her alone, Brafford replied that he wasn’t bothering her and said, “You leave me the f–alone.” He then addressed the other passengers, saying “As a matter of fact, all you guys leave me the f— alone.”

He told police he had used methamphetamine the day before and had overdosed on heroin three days before the flight, the FBI complaint said.

“Being obnoxious and boorish is not a crime.”

This is hardly a case of extreme passenger behavior, but it indicative of the sensitivity of the aviation safety crew to being diverted from their duties. Recent trends of the problems encountered by the flight attendants –

IATA Calls For Greater Governmental Action On Unruly Passengers While A SMS Review More Likely To Increase Aviation Safety Proactively

A New Airline Safety Approach To Improve The Persistent Problem To Unruly Passengers

Disruptive Behavior On Board Aircraft Has Severe Consequences


Deterring Disruptive Air Passengers, Protecting Flight Attendants


Both passengers and cabin crews find flight to be more stressful. However, as a matter of safety and federal law, it has been decided that the job of the cabin attendants justify providing deterrence against the customers’ behavior.

The criminal process places a heavy burden of proof, “beyond a reasonable level of doubt”, on the prosecutor. The US attorney likely will attempt to prove that the Texas man’s abrupt behavior was inappropriate and a basis for the criminal charge. The jury will decide whether the facts support a felony conviction.

Putting passenger behavior in a criminal court is a recognition that aviation safety—the other passengers and crew—is a high societal value.



NEW DETAILS: FAA Launches New Investigation Into Hartsfield-Jackson

The Federal Aviation Administration is launching a new investigation into Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport alleging it may have unlawfully diverted revenue to the city of Atlanta

The Federal Aviation Administration is launching a new investigation into Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport alleging it may have unlawfully diverted revenue to the city of Atlanta.

The FAA sent a notice of investigation to the city, which owns and operates Hartsfield-Jackson, along with a subpoena for airport invoices from 2016 through mid-2018. The notice says the FAA is also looking into whether Atlanta improperly withheld documents from investigators.

The document also reveals the city has acknowledged invoices totaling more than $100,000 “were wrongly paid from airport funds” and that it reimbursed the airport for the payments.

FAA regulations prohibit the use of airport revenue for purposes other than an airport’s capital or operating costs. That’s designed to keep local governments from using airports as cash cows and funneling away their money. The prohibition also ensures that federal airport grants support airport projects and not other uses.

The FAA’s notice of investigation cites an article published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicating the city may have used airport revenue to pay legal fees for responding to a federal corruption probe into Atlanta City Hall.

After the AJC article was published last year, the FAA opened an inquiry into the possible misuse of millions of dollars in airport revenue and requested records on legal expenditures. The airport through its law firm produced heavily redacted invoices and other documents.

The new investigation steps up the FAA’s scrutiny of Hartsfield-Jackson and the use of airport funds.

The FAA says in the July 25, 2019 notice of investigation that it has already determined that the city “may have made ineligible payments to law firms from airport revenue accounts,” but it could not make conclusive findings because of the extensive redactions. The agency also said the city has “on multiple occasions, refused to comply with the FAA requests for un-redacted legal fees invoices.”

The FAA also outlines in the document that the terms for accepting grants require the city to make all airport records and documents available for inspection when requested.

The city has 30 days to respond to the notice of investigation and the subpoena.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ spokesman Michael Smith issued a statement saying the city “is surprised” by the filing and the FAA’s suggestions that it refused to provide documents, among other statements.

After the FAA subpoenaed airport legal records as part of an audit launched earlier this year, city officials contended those records were subject to attorney-client privilege, and the FAA referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice.


The city of Atlanta has accepted more than $962 million in airport improvement program funding since 1982, according to the FAA, including last year’s $17 million in for a taxiway project and $6.5 million to mitigate noise for residents.

Sanctions for improper use of airport revenue can include withholding of future grant funding and civil penalties.

The facts alleged so far do not rise to the level of criminal actions, but the FAA investigation has not been completed. The Atlanta Constitution-Journal’s stories allege, among other things, that the mayor, after election but before assuming office, placed some individuals on the airport payroll. That abuse of power is unacceptable. The real remedy is to create an independent airport authority and clarifying the boundaries between the City and Hartsfield.

Alcoholism is a disease which is difficult to defeat. In the context of aviation and in particular, airline pilots, intoxication on the job is a huge safety risk, Fortunately, in the 1970s, the Air Line Pilots Association, funded by the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), initiated this seminal research to assess the best way to deal with alcoholism in the cockpit. The commercial aviation environment was not well suited for a traditional on-the-job supervisory program, and it was believed a recovering pilot’s ability to function effectively was best observed by fellow pilots. The program is called Human Intervention Motivation Study, or HIMS.


Since its inception, over 4,500 professional pilots have been successfully rehabilitated and returned to their careers.

Unfortunately, these two pilots did not connect with HIMS.


Two United Airline pilots to appear in court after allegedly failing breath tests before Glasgow flight

Two pilots are to appear in court after allegedly failing breath tests ahead of a flight to the US.

A United Airlines service from Glasgow to Newark was cancelled on Saturday after the pair’s arrest on suspicion of being under the influence of drink or drugs.

Flight number UA162 had been due to depart Glasgow Airport at 9am.


The male pilots aged 45 and 61 are expected to appear at Paisley Sheriff Court later on Tuesday.


They have been in custody since their arrest over an alleged breach of the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003.

The law states the alcohol limit for pilots is nine micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath – less than half the 22 micrograms limit for drivers in Scotland.

If convicted, they face a punishment of up to two years in prison, a fine or both.

Most courts are aware of diversion programs like HIMS. If, however, the two pilots are repeat offenders, full criminal sanctions should be imposed.






There are other circumstances in which criminal action may be appropriate:

FBI For 21 Years Have Vigorously Pursued Mechanic Suspected In The ValuJet Crash (110 Dead), BUT…






FBI Highlights Increase Of In-Flight Sexual Assaults And Provides Some Useful Advice

Paperwork Matters; Be Careful!!!












Increase In FAA’s Criminal Docket ?


Criminal Aviation Case And Others Raises Some Serious Questions


Criminal Parts Conviction Impacts Seller, But Should Be A Useful FAA Caveat Emptor Lesson

There Can Be Criminal Consequences To SUP Stupid Airworthiness Errors













Share this article: FacebooktwitterlinkedinFacebooktwitterlinkedin

Be the first to comment on "Aviation and Crime: recent cases"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.