Disruptive Air Passengers
An appeal of an FAA imposition of $5,500 civil penalty against a disruptive passenger raised the legal issue of whether the Administrator had the statutory authority under 49 U.S.C. § 44701(a)(5) to
- prohibit passengers from non-violently interfering with crewmember duties or
- to enforce that prohibition through civil penalties.
The Court in Wallaesa v. Fed. Aviation Admin., 2016 WL 3212995 (D.C. Cir. June 10, 2016) ruled that the FAA has the legal basis to take such actions. Hardly an unexpected outcome, but the decision is a good reason to reflect on the safety implications of passengers interfering with a crew member.
Brief review of the facts is a useful predicate to this discussion:
- November 2009, Brian Wallaesa, a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight from Baltimore to Las Vegas;
- He “became an annoyance” to his seat mate, a female;
- The harassed passenger asked to and was given permission to exchange seats with another passenger across the aisle;
- The flight attendant repeatedly instructed Wallaesa to remain away from the female passenger, and he ignored that direction;
- As the plane approached the destination, the captain turned on the passenger seat belt placard in expectation of turbulence;
- The persistent Mr. Wallaesa ignored the warning, stood up and walked and attempted to speak to the female passenger;
- In response to the potential safety risks, the flight attendants, who were seated as a precaution, had to get up from their seats, intercept him and tell him to sit down;
- After refusing multiple requests to return to his seat, the crew enlisted the help of an FBI agent on board, who eventually handcuffed and subdued Wallaesa;
- Law enforcement officials met the plane at the gate.
The case did not consider what actually happened; the facts were not contested. Counsel argued that the FAA’s powers did not include such behavior. The judges disagreed.
Recent press accounts would leave the average person to believe that the incidence of disruptive passengers on aircraft has increased. It is such a prominent phenomenon that scholars have studied the causes, e.g. “A longitudinal analysis of passenger travel disruptions in the National Air Transportation System.” The problem of passenger behavior has existed for many years.
As measured by FAA enforcement actions under 14 CFR 91.11, 121.580, 135.120, 125.328, 49 USC 46318 & 46504, the numbers meriting formal sanctions have actually decreased:
|2016||9 as of April 13, 2016|
As noted there, “[t]he repercussions for passengers who engage in unruly behavior can be substantial. They can be fined by FAA or prosecuted on criminal charges…As part of the FAA’s Reauthorization Bill (April 16, 2000) FAA can propose up to $25,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases. Previously, the maximum civil penalty per violation was $1,100. One incident can result in multiple violations.” [emphasis added]
Passenger disruptions occur for a variety of reasons. All too often, the source of the bad behavior is alcohol. Some travelers are so stressed out by flight that they react emotionally and demonstrably. Air rage is something which the FAA has addressed in FAA Order 8900.1, volume 14, chapter 2, section 1. The flight attendants’ pre-flight announcements include warning language about compliance with their instructions; unfortunately, many passengers do not pay attention to the routinely repeated “rules.”
The calm, rational travelers have little problems complying with the flight attendants, but those, who do not/cannot comply, cause problems for the cabin crews, the air marshals and other passengers. The process of subduing the badly behaved frequently compels the use of strong arm tactics and those commotions can spill into those seated near the incidents.
One would think that the shame and embarrassment which the malefactor receives would act as a deterrent, but the repetition of the behavior suggests that the actions are not controlled by rationality!!
The prevalence of warnings on ticket covers, backs of seats and inside lavatories may drown out the messages, but maybe one more can’t hurt that much. If it helps deter one more Mr. Wallaesa, it would be worth the extra effort.