T&I Chair asks FAA what’s needed to up the response to Unruly Passenger surge
FAA’s dealing with cases within legal options
PR campaign strong
DoJ’s Criminal Division Assistant AG Polite has the power
Chairman DeFazio wrote the above letter to Administrator Dickson (full text) highlighting the unruly passenger behavior and pointing to six specific instances in which flight attendants were assaulted. The closing paragraphs requested from the agency the number of additional safety inspectors, additional authority or other things might be needed to restore order on these flights. [see below article for complete article]
No one can disagree with the Chairman’s frustration, or more aptly anger, over incidents endangering safety of flights. His request for added response to this crisis was echoed by the flight attendant unions and airlines. Before assessing what the FAA might say in response to the “ask” paragraphs of the August 6 letter , it is instructive to review what the FAA has done already.
The volume of these violent acts has not been seen ever—3,810 reports, 655 investigations and 113 enforcement cases have been initiated by the FAA within its power to move forward. The below graph the precipitous increase in 2020-2021 investigations.
That suggests that the FAA enforcement team is dealing with this huge surge in cases within its jurisdiction.
Some credit is due to their public information efforts, too:
What is unseen is criminal prosecution, a deterrent with the highest impact on passengers about to launch into interfering with a flight attendant. The statute, which was written to punish such behavior [49 USC 46504: Interference with flight crew members and attendants] is within the exclusive authority of the Department of Justice and its US Attorneys around the country.
The specific number of § 46504 indictments and convictions is not as transparent as the FAA reference material.
It appears that since 2017 about 10 cases have been announced for violations of the interference prohibition—
Delegating the power to prosecute from DOJ to the FAA would likely receive strong institutional resistance (more than 100,000 attorneys, special agents, and other staff.). A4A and an alliance of unions and other trade associations have already requested greater attention from the Attorney General:
A coalition of airline industry groups has asked the Justice Department to “commit to the full and public prosecution of onboard acts of violence” as bad behavior by passengers continues to rise.
In a letter sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday, the group — which includes unions and trade associations — lauded the efforts of the Federal Aviation Administration, which announced a zero-tolerance policy for bad behavior in January.
Apparently, the Attorney General is too busy to respond. It is obvious that the case workload of the US Attorneys offices around the country is overloaded with drug cases, high profile white collar crimes and a long list of local issues.
someone just in a senior Justice position than to take on a high profile case that is likely to attract good press coverage, like convicting these hoodlums. Polite has 16 offices within his control, but none of them holds competence which aligns with this assignment.
Chairman DeFazio should write a letter to the Honorable Kenneth Allen Polite requesting that the Assistant AG create a task force to attack this unconscionable surge. This team might draw from his own criminal attorneys and could be augmented by a cadre within the Civil Division, AVIATION, SPACE & ADMIRALTY LITIGATION SECTION—
Our Section’s aviation practice is largely comprised of suits defending the United States in wrongful death, serious personal injury, and extensive property damage actions arising from aircraft accidents. Federal activities giving rise to these lawsuits include air traffic control, military aviation operations, weather dissemination, charting of obstacles, operation of navigational aids, and certification of aircraft, airports, and air personnel.
This task force should be able to issue a bunch of charges and soon thereafter images of shackled individuals entering the gates of a federal penitentiary.
August 10, 2021 Homeland Security Today
“Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) has sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) responding to the dramatic rise in air rage incidents over the last several months. In his letter, DeFazio stated that the dramatic increase in airline passengers assaulting other passengers as well as crew members requires a strong federal response.
“The violent, disruptive behavior that we’ve seen on airplanes this year must not go unpunished,” Chair DeFazio wrote in his letter. “Recklessly refusing to wear a mask during the deadliest pandemic in a century is dangerous enough, but punching flight attendants, running for the cockpit door, assaulting other passengers, and the litany of other outrageous incidents reported in the press requires a strong federal response, and I want to ensure that the FAA has the legal tools and authorities necessary to put these incidents to a stop.”
DeFazio’s letter cited various examples including an incident in May when a passenger reportedly punched a Southwest flight attendant in the face, causing grievous injuries that included the loss of two teeth.
The number of air rage incidents subject to enforcement investigations has indeed skyrocketed, and are currently almost twice the previous peak of enforcement investigations into air rage incidents. DeFazio also noted a recent survey by the Association of Flight Attendants, querying more than 5,000 flight attendants across mainline and regional airlines, which found that 17 percent of flight attendants—nearly one in five—reported physical injury during passenger-related altercations in flight. Fifty-eight percent reported at least five incidents of unruly passenger behavior this year, and 85 percent said they had experienced at least one such incident this year.
“Some incidents appear to relate to passengers’ reckless disregard of the commonsense federal requirement that they must wear masks while on board an aircraft and in an airport,” DeFazio wrote. “But it would be naïve to ascribe all such incidents to the mask mandate; we may be seeing the reemergence of a spate of air rage incidents that plagued the airlines in the late 1990s and early aughts, the causes of which were as varied as the circumstances themselves.”
Unruly behavior on board an aircraft does not go unpunished by the FAA. The agency has statutory authority to pursue civil enforcement action and a $37,000 fine against any passenger who assaults a crew member or other passenger, or who otherwise commits any act that endangers the safety of the aircraft. It is also a federal crime that can land a perpetrator in prison for up to 20 years for interfering with the performance of a crew member’s duties.
But DeFazio cautioned that “judicial authorities could take an unreasonably narrow view of the meaning of ‘interference’ for purposes of the statutes and regulations”. He added that “clarification would be helpful to enhance the chances of success in actions to hold unruly passengers accountable for their behavior” and that he would welcome the FAA’s suggestions regarding appropriate statutory changes.
“The violent, disruptive behavior that we’ve seen on airplanes this year must not go unpunished. Recklessly refusing to wear a mask during the deadliest pandemic in a century is dangerous enough, but punching flight attendants, running for the cockpit door, assaulting other passengers, and the litany of other outrageous incidents reported in the press requires a strong federal response, and I want to ensure that the FAA has the legal tools and authorities necessary to put these incidents to a stop,” DeFazio stated in his letter.
DeFazio asked the FAA to provide the Committee with the number of additional safety inspectors the FAA needs to handle the enforcement caseload; and any additional authorities or tools the FAA needs from Congress to make the prohibition on interference with crew members easier to enforce.”
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