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Illustration by Security Management

FAA Issues New Policy on Unruly Passengers

On 13 January 2021, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Steve Dickson called for a stricter legal enforcement in dealing with unruly passengers and instituted new penalties, effective immediately.

The FAA will pursue legal action against unruly passengers, potentially fining them up to $35,000 and seeking imprisonment. Also, deviating from previous practices, as of 13 January, “the FAA will not address these cases with warnings or counseling,” the agency said.

The FAA’s new policy will remain in effect through 30 March 2021.

“The FAA has seen a disturbing increase in incidents where airline passengers have disrupted flights with threatening or violent behavior,” the agency said in a press release. “These incidents have stemmed both from passengers’ refusals to wear masks and from recent violence at the U.S. Capitol.”

Several airlines have reported such incidents and videos of Trump supporters verbally abusing other passengers have popped up on social media. According to NPR, the FAA’s new policy has garnered support from airlines and their staff.

According to ABC News, passengers on an American Airlines plane disrupted a flight from D.C. to Phoenix, Arizona, by chanting “U.S.A.” and “Fight for Trump” until the plane’s pilot threatened to divert the plane unless passengers behaved. United Airlines reported that it banned approximately 60 individuals for violating face covering policies just within the week of the riot at the U.S. Capitol buildings.

“Some lawmakers and airline union officials have demanded that people who took part in the riot at the Capitol be placed on the federal no-fly list,” the Associated Press reported. “The FAA said it does not have authority over that list but works with law enforcement agencies on security threats.” 

During 2020 and into 2021, some airlines were already dealing with passengers who were bucking against pandemic policies or causing harassment that was driven by political ideologies. Although there are no federal mandates regarding face coverings on airplanes, U.S. airlines have instituted company policies.

For example, Alaska Airlines kicked 14 people off a flight from Washington, D.C., to Seattle-Tacoma on 7 January for ignoring the company’s mask policy and harassing airline staff. (The airline did not identify whether these passengers were involved with the protest and/or subsequent riot at the U.S. Capitol building.) Altogether, Delta, United, and Alaska have banned at least 900 passengers for refusing to wear face coverings.

Forbes even compiled a list of the worst passengers on flights from 2020, with notable shoutouts to customers who revolted or even assaulted others over mask policies.

The FAA tracks the number of “unruly passengers” per year and recorded 108 passengers that fell into this category from 1 January 2020 to 30 November 2020. Unruly passengers are defined as those who assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with crew members. By the end of the year, the agency was filing civil penalties of $7,500 to $15,000 against two individuals on separate flights who interfered with mask policies.